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Chapter 7: Post Classical Asia
India’s Frustrated Search for Unity
Just like Rome, Byzantium and China, India played an influential role in shaping neighboring societies, in
this case south and Southeast Asia. The Great difference between the situation in the Indian Ocean Basin and
either Rome/Constantinople or China was that (like Classical Greece) no unified Indian state would develop
until the Mughal Empire of the 16th century. Nevertheless, India continued to spread its distinctive political,
cultural and religious traditions to its neighbors, especially Southeast Asia.
We have seen how the Gupta presided over a brilliant cultural age, and yet was hampered by weak central
authority, allowing local rajas much autonomy (self-rule). We also saw how the White Huns in 451 invaded
India and disrupted the Gupta “Empire” so that, by the mid sixth century, the Gupta State had completely
collapsed and India had reverted to its historical pattern of regional kingdoms. And it is at this point that
Northern and Southern India begin to take very different political and social paths.
Northern India
Indian disunity - created by so many little kingdoms - made it possible for Turkish-Mongol migration to
flood into Northern India. Like migrants throughout history, these nomads came to stay for a better life and
so they usually carved out areas for themselves and were slowly absorbed into Indian society.
The Maharaja Harsha
Imperial power was partially restored, however, about 150 years after the fall of the Gupta when the raja
Harsha (c. 590–647), who ruled one of the small kingdoms of Northern India, united most of Northern India
under his rule. Harsha could be intolerant to those who resisted his authority, but once he became the
maharaja, he became famous for his piety, liberality (generosity) and scholarship. A Buddhist monk visiting
from China, Xuanzong, noted that he gave away much of his wealth to his people. He built hospitals and
gave free medical care to all his subjects. He patronized scholars and even wrote plays. Harsha himself was a
Buddhist who looked kindly on other religions. And yet, despite his enlightened rule, however, he was
unable to restore permanent centralized rule. Like Charlemagne, he spent much of his time “in the
saddle” networking with local rajas to keep them in line and loyal. And it should be noted that Harsha was
unable to subdue to extend his authority into Southern India.
When Harsha was assassinated in 648, he left no heir and his kingdom disintegrated. So Northern India
reverted to the pattern of local kingdoms and this continuing political disunity continuing to make India easy
prey for foreign migration and invasion. It is at this point that Islam was introduced to India which would
have profound consequences for all subsequent Indian history.
Islam comes to India in Three Ways
First [Conquest]: In 711, the Umayyad Arabs reached India in a well-organized expedition which
conquered the Sind (the lower Indus River Valley; today, south east Pakistan) and incorporated it as a province in
the expanding Umayyad Empire. Along with the rest of their empire, the Sind passed into the hands of the
Abbasid Caliphs. But the Sind was on the fringe of the Islamic world and so most of its population remained
Hindu, Buddhist or Parsee. (Parsee comes from Parsi, or Persians of Zoroastrian faith who migrated to India in the
seventh and eighth centuries to flee Muslim persecution.) Later on, the Sufis made many converts in the Sind but
in spite of their efforts, the Sind (called Mehran today) has the largest Hindu population of any province in
modern Pakistan.
Second [Trade] Islam also came to India via Muslim merchants who brought their faith with them to the
towns and cities of both northern and southern India. Thus, as these Islamic merchant communities grew and
flourished, they slowly brought converts to Islam.
Finally [Migration], Islam came to India through the migrations [invasions] of Turkish-Mongolian speaking
peoples from Central Asia, who had converted to Islam before they entered India. Most of these immigrants
came in small groups and mixed with Indian society forming their own subcastes (Jati) but in the eleventh
century, an Afghan warlord, Mahmud of Ghazni, turned his attention towards a disorganized India.
Between 1001 and 1027, Mahmud led seventeen raids into India. Since his main goal was to plunder and
loot, he won very few converts. Moreover, in his search for gold, jewels and women for his harem, his
soldiers demolished hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist structures (temples and stupas) and massacred
thousands of Indian defenders. Mahmud turned his own provincial city of Ghazni (in present-day
Afghanistan) into the wealthy capital of an extensive empire which stretched from Iran to northwest India.
He also was the first Muslim leader to take the title Sultan (or ruler) signifying his independence from the
Abbasid Caliph. He was also (in contrast to his violent streak) a great patron of Persian poets.
Mahmud’s raids did much damage to both Hinduism and Buddhism, but with very different long term
outcomes. The Hindus were the majority population and easily survived these assaults, but with bitter hatred
for Islam; on the other hand, these raids proved disastrous for Buddhism and hastened its decline in the land
of its birth.
The Sultanate of Delhi
During the late twelfth century, Mahmud’s successors, armed with powerful crossbows made more effective
by iron stirrups (providing a stable platform to shoot while riding), launched even more systematic campaigns
(no longer just to plunder but) to conquer Indian Territory and place it under Islamic rule. In the early
thirteenth century, the sultan, Iltutmish (1211-1236), established a stable kingdom in Northern India with
Delhi as his capital. His kingdom was called the Sultanate of Delhi and his successors ruled Northern India
for over 300 years.
Iltutmish was also famous for completing the Qutub Minar in Delhi, the tallest brick minaret in the world
and (in a male dominated society) for choosing his daughter, Razia, to succeed him in the place of his lazy
and incompetent sons. Although she reigned for only four years before a re-assertion of male authority drove
her from power, she defied the conventions of her day.
During the 15th century, the Sultans of Delhi commanded a state that ranked among the most powerful in the
Dar al-Islam. They remained a minority in a Hindu country and often used terror and military reprisals to
keep order. Some textbooks say that the Delhi Sultans conquered most of Southern India, but this appears
misleading because, although they raided Southern India, they did not permanently occupy it. This raiding
mentality reflected their nomadic roots, which was further demonstrated in their failure to set up any
permanent bureaucracy or administrative system.
As a result, the Sultans of Delhi had to depend on the local (and often resentful) Hindu rulers to carry out
their policies. However, over time their hostility toward the Hindu majority softened and sultans even
married into the families of the Hindu elite. The resulting fusion helped Islam take root and spread a thin
veneer of Islam over a Hindu country. As a result by the sixteenth century, about 25% of the population of
Northern India became Muslim. Nevertheless, in spite of its shortcomings, the Delhi Sultanate improved
food production, promoted trade and economic growth and established a common currency.
Southern India
On the other hand, Southern India remained politically divided, but these Hindu dominated kingdoms were
spared the constant migrations and most of the invasions that disrupted Northern India. Most Hindu rajas of
Southern India presided over small, loosely-administered kingdoms which often fought with each other or
with the Delhi Sultanate. But these conflicts were less frequent and less damaging than events in the north.
Nevertheless, there were two partial Hindu restorations of Imperial power in Southern India.
First, from 850 to1267, the Chola Kingdom, which originated in the fertile valley of the Kaveri River,
became rich from sea trade and eventually powerful enough to extend marginal (minimal) control over most
of Southern India. At its high point in the 11th century, the Kingdom of the Chola conquered Ceylon (Sri
Lanka today) and many parts of Southeast Asia. But it is important to remember that the Chola did not build
a tightly centralized state and allowed local rajas considerable autonomy to maintain order and collect taxes.
In the 12th century Ceylon won its freedom and the Chola fell into slow decline. It is important to
understand that the Chola did not collapse but reverted back to small kingdom status.
The second partial restoration of Imperial greatness was the kingdom of Vijayanagar which expanded in
power as the Chola contracted. Vijayanagar owed its origin to one of the sultans of Delhi who sent two
brothers, Muslims converted from Hinduism, Harihara and Bukka, to represent the sultan and implement
his policies in southern India. Instead in 1336, they reconverted to Hinduism and established the empire of
Vijayanagar, which means City of Victory, which flourished until the sixteenth century.
Two chapters ago we mentioned that in the late fourteenth century, the Mongol Chieftain, Tamerlane (whom
we shall meet later in this chapter) invaded India (He was the same Tamerlane that crushed the Ottomans in 1402).
He brutally sacked Delhi and devastated much of the Ganges River Valley, but made no attempt to occupy
India. The Sultanate of Delhi survived Tamerlane’s savagery and dominated Northern India again until 1526
when another Mongol chieftain, Babur (the tiger), defeated the last of the Delhi sultans. His grandson,
Akbar, extended these conquests to the rest of India including Vijayanagar, except the very southernmost
tip, and established the Mughal (or Mongol) Empire.
Trade and Culture
We have already studied how the monsoons dropped rain on India only part of the year. One of the great
achievements of the Post Classical Period was that Indian engineers and farmers created sophisticated
irrigation systems and large reservoirs (like the man-made-lakes at Bhopal in North Central India, which covered
almost 250 square miles). The result was a significant increase in agricultural output and - as in China - a
corresponding population explosion. In 600 CE, shortly after the fall of the Gupta kingdom, India’s
population was 53 million; by 800, it was 64 million; by 1000, 79 million; by 1500, 105 million. This
mushrooming population growth, just as in China and Europe, caused growing urbanization. Delhi by the
14th century had a population of over 400,000, making it’s the second biggest Islamic city in the Dar alIslam. Many other cities – particularly ports and trading centers – like Cambay, Surat, Calicut (modern
Calcutta), Quilon and Masulipatam, all had populations over 100,000.
All this growth created new conduits of commerce within India itself. Most sections of India were self
sufficient in terms of food, such as rice, wheat, barley or millet. But it was a different story with iron, copper,
salt, pepper, spices and other specialized crops. Iron came from mines in the Ganges River Valley in Bengal;
copper came from the Deccan (the central plateau); salt from the coastal regions and pepper from the south.
Internal trade grew as these commodities crisscrossed India. Southern India and Ceylon benefited the most
from this internal trade, especially the Chola kingdom.
Supporting Indian economic growth was the unique role played by Hindu Temples. Hindu Temples
reflected Vedic Tradition as seen in their architecture and symbolic decoration. Hindu Temples served both
as religious centers and as economic and social centers: they stored grain, educated the boys of a community
and employed hundreds of people, including Brahmins and their attendants, musicians, administrators and
slaves. Temple administrators were also responsible for keeping civil order, collecting taxes and promoting
economic development. They also served as bankers and worked with merchants and guilds. Over time,
much land and other assets came under the control of these Hindu Temples, which became enormously
wealthy and the centers of economic life in Southern India.
India also benefitted from External Trade because she sat in the middle of the water route portion of
the Silk Roads that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean. We have seen how mariners learned the rhythms of the
monsoon and how trade rapidly expanded. In the Post Classical Era Indian engineers began to build larger
ships. The favorite of these was Dhow. Dhows were found in Classical Times and by 1000 these larger
Dhows could carry about a hundred tons of cargo, and by 1,500 even larger Dhows could carry 400 tons.
Soon after that, they came into contract with Chinese traders, and learned to build Chinese Junks, which
could easily carry 1,000 tons of cargo. The bottom line was that increasing maritime activity coupled
with India’s geographic position, made India a giant emporium for east-west trade.
This growing economy increased demand for Chinese silk and porcelain; for Southeast Asian spices; for
Arabian incense, dates and horses; for Central Asian heavy duty war horses, and for African gold, ivory
and slaves. India became famous for her high quality cotton textiles, ironwork, carbon steel, tapestries,
leather tanning and stone carving.
All these changes challenged India’s Caste System, but it is important to understand that the caste system
was able to accommodate and then absorb immigration, new industries and urbanization. As manufacturing
and trading became more important, powerful guilds were organized to represent their interests. These
different and expanding guilds meant that more types of people had to be classified. This made the caste
system more complex, but the Temple system was able to coordinate this evolution.
The Meeting of Hindu and Islamic Traditions
Hinduism and Islam were very different and yet sometimes very similar. The Hindu Pantheon made places
for many gods even though it acknowledged a single creator-spirit (Brahman). Islam, on the other hand, was
unbendingly monotheistic but often tolerant. Islam was politically but not numerically dominant in the North
whereas Hinduism totally dominant in the South. The decline of Buddhism due to invasions, the destruction
of its shrines, and competition from Islam and Hinduism, made Hinduism the primary beneficiary.
Remember that during the Postclassical Period, Hinduism was re-inventing itself and, as it evolved, it
became more and more popular to ordinary people by its devotional cults to Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu was
the preserver of the world, the judge who watched everything and occasionally entered the world in human
form to combat evil or teach his doctrines. Shiva, by contrast, was both a god of fertility and a god of death
and even destruction. It is really quite logical: Shiva brought life, but also took it away when its season had
passed. Both of these cults promised salvation and became especially popular in Southern India. By
venerating Vishnu or Shiva, offering them food and drink, and by meditating upon them and their qualities,
Hindus believed that they could achieve mystic union with the gods that would bring grace and salvation.
Both cults spread to Hindus in Northern India as well.
Hindu Philosophy
There were two major Post Classical Hindu philosophers. The first was Shankara, a Brahmin who lived in
the ninth century C.E. Like Plato, he held that the physical world was an illusion – a figment of the
imagination – and that ultimate reality lay beyond human senses. Although he worshipped Shiva, he
mistrusted emotional services and ceremonies, and insisted that only by disciplined, logical reasoning could
humans understand the ultimate reality of Brahman, the impersonal world soul of the Upanishads.
Ramanuja on the other hand was a worshipper of Vishnu, who also was a Brahmin philosopher and lived in
the 12th century. He challenged Shankara’s system of rigorous logic and defended the devotional cults. He
said that intellectual understanding of ultimate reality was less important than personal union with the deity.
He did not reject reason, but held that true happiness came from salvation. Ramanuja’s philosophy became
the more and dominant of the two - and pointed Hinduism towards the salvation ideal, which serves today as
the philosophical (underpinning) foundation for modern Hindu religion.
Ratio to Islam: Islam did not attract great numbers of Indians, especially at first under the Delhi Sultans, but
under Mughal patronage, the Muslim population grew to that by 1500 CE Muslims numbered about 25
million or one-fourth of India’s population. The Sufis were particularly effective agents of this conversion
trend, because they encouraged a personal, emotional and devotional approach to Islam, but did not insist on
fine points of doctrine. Thus they attracted individuals searching for comfort and meaning in their personal
The Bhakti Movement emerged in southern India during the 12th century C.E. and encouraged traditional
piety and devotion to Hindu values, but, as the movement spread northward, it began to incorporate certain
Islamic values, especially monotheism and the notion of the spiritual equality of all believers. Eventually the
movement rejected the exclusive features of both Islam and Hinduism. The most famous Bhakti guru, Guru
Kabir (1440-1518), was a blind weaver who went so far as to teach that Shiva, Vishnu and Allah were all
manifestations of a single, universal deity whom all devout believers could find in their hearts.
Southeast Asia
From a world history perspective, Southeast Asia has long been a meeting point where Chinese and Indian
zones of influence overlapped. But it is very important to understand that India had far greater
influence in Southeast Asia than did China. India was to Southeast Asia as Byzantium was to Russia,
or China was to Japan. As Indian culture spread southeastward, it also spread Hinduism, Buddhism and
later Islam. Most major Southeast Asian cultures began to emerge in the first 500 years of the Common Era:
Funan on the Malay Peninsula, the Mon and the Burmese in Burma (Myanmar today), the Thai in Thailand
(sometimes called Siam) and the Champa and Annam in Vietnam.
Between the 1st and 6th centuries C.E., Funan became the first Southeast Asian State to come under Indian
cultural and political influence. Funan dominated the lower reaches of the Mekong River (parts of modern
Vietnam and Cambodia) and upper two-thirds of the Malay Peninsula. Funan grew wealthy because of its
strategic location controlled and its control of the Isthmus of Kra (the narrowest point on the Peninsula)
where it could tax goods traveling east or west. The ruling elite adopted Indian political and cultural
traditions. For example, they used Sanskrit for their language; they called their rulers rajas and introduced
the Hindu religion with its worship of Vishnu, Shiva and other Hindu gods. But like Japan would be to
China or Russia to Byzantium, Funan did not lose its own distinctive cultural or religious traditions.
After the decline of Funan in the sixth century, political leadership passed to the Kingdom of Srivijaya (sree
VIH juh yuh), based on the lower tip of the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Java. Their
kings built a large navy, controlling commerce and growing rich from taxes levied on passing ships. They
dominated the sea-trading routes from the 600s to the 1000s and like Funan they embraced Indian Culture
but with an emphasis on Buddhism. In the 11th century, the Chola Kingdom of Southern India attacked them
and helped bring about their demise. Their greatest legacy is the Buddhist temple complex of Borobudur on
the island of Java. This amazing complex was built as an enormous Stupa (shrine) and, if viewed from
above, it takes the form of a giant Mandala, (or geometric pattern which symbolically represents the
cosmos). Borobudur was constructed in the shape of a mountain with three miles of winding walkways with
thousands of stone-carved reliefs depicting the world of Buddhism.
With the decline of the Srivijayan Empire, the Khmer Empire began to rise in Cambodia. Like the Kingdom
of Srivijaya, the Khmer organized about 500 CE but reached their peak later between 900 and mid 1400s.
They were an aggressive culture and they occupied Burma to the Malay Peninsula. In 889, the Khmer began
to build an incredible city (in the middle of the jungle) called Angkor Thom. With the aid of Brahmin
advisors it was designed as a microcosmic reflection of the Hindu world order. During the 12th and 13th
centuries the Khmer converted to Buddhism and added Buddhist temples to the complex, but did not alter or
deface the earlier Hindu temples. The entire complex was two-miles square and surrounded by a moat fed by
the Mekong River. During this Buddhist period a smaller, but more elaborate complex was built nearby in
Angkor Wat. In 1431 the Thai invaded the region and the Khmers abandoned the complexes and the jungle
re-claimed the complex. Rediscovered by two French archeologists in 1861, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat
remain vivid reminders of Indian political and religious influence in Southeast Asia.
Singosari and Majapahit were small kingdoms on the island of Java, which also filled in the “power
vacuum” left by the decline of the Srivijayan Empire. Between 1222 and 1520 C.E., they flourished growing
wealthy by controlling maritime trade. And they too fell under Indian cultural influence and their surviving
art shows a mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and native religious figures.
Muslim merchants began arriving in Southeast Asia as early as the 8th century, but only in the 10th century
did they become prominent in local trading communities. For centuries the local populations were not
attracted to Islam, but as time passed, the local elites and middle class traders began to convert, so that by the
13th century most of the people living in towns and the elite on Sumatra had converted to Islam. Although the
elite did not force ordinary people to convert, they did encourage the Sufis to proselytize and the Sufis had
great success because (as was their custom) they allowed converts to retain much of their old religious
traditions. Thus, it is very important to understand that this Islam was syncretic, in that the newly
converted often honored their Buddhist, Hindu or indigenous religious traditions, as well as Islam and
its five pillars. And it is interesting to note that Islam was often adopted out of a sense of pragmatism,
as with merchants, for example, who traded with Muslim merchants.
During the 15th century Islam grew even stronger in Southeast Asia due to the efforts of a powerful regional
state, called Melaka, based on the Malaysian Peninsula and on Sumatra. Founded in the late Fourteenth
Century by a Sumatran prince, Paramesvara, Melaka grew wealthy because of its geographical position and
its ability to control the trade routes. Melaka built a strong navy and protected the sea-lanes from pirates.
Although it began as a Hindu state, Melaka converted to Islam during the mid-15th century. So by the end of
the 15th century, mosques and minarets began to outline the urban landscapes (cities) of Java, Sumatra and
the Malaysian Peninsula. Also by the 15th century, Islam was making its first appearance in the Maluku
Islands, Celebes, and the Southern Philippines.
Post-Classical China
After the fall of the Han in 220, China (as we have seen) entered into its Dark Ages during which three
kingdoms, the Wei in North China; the Wu in Southeast China and the Shu in South West China, all vied
(struggled) for power. At one point there were sixteen warlord kingdoms. Finally in 580 C.E., Yang Jian
(Wendi) seized power in Northern China. In less than ten years, he controlled all of China and established the
Sui (pronounced Swee) Dynasty. He was not a legalist per se, but he demanded much of his subjects. He
built a strong, centralized government and expanded China’s borders into Korea and Central Asia. In spite of
his harshness, he won popular support by lowering taxes and building granaries for reserve food for
times of famine.
In 604 however, he was murdered by son, Sui Yangdi, who extended his father’s conquests pushing back the
nomads in the north. He restored the Confucian Educational System and its examination process for
entrance into government bureaucracy. Unlike his father, however, he was not popular and he brutally taxed
the people and conscripted huge numbers of men for the army and for building China’s infrastructure. He
began work on the Grand Canal, a north-south transportation system, which incorporated many earlier and
smaller canals and eventually stretched 1,200 miles connecting Hangzhou near the coast in Central China
and the Yangtze River up to the Yellow River and to Beijing in Northern China.
The Grand Canal became the most economical way to transport rice and other bulk products until the
railroads and motor-transport of the 20th century. Sui Yangdi’s public works projects helped China in the
long run, but his high taxes and forced-labor conscription caused great anger and resentment. When his
armies met reverses in Korea and Central Asia, his empire crumbled and he retreated from reality into his
pleasure palaces in Hangzhou. Finally in 618, he was assassinated by a disgruntled minister.
Li Yuan and the Tang
Centralized government almost collapsed but for Li Yuan (the Duke of Tang) who had already begun the
rebellion against Sui Yangdi. By 623, Li Yuan had won the throne but, in 626, his son, Tang Taizong,
pushed him aside and - to secure his power - murdered his brothers. But once on the throne, Tang Taizong
laid the foundations for the greatness of a new Dynasty, the Tang. He displayed an extraordinary sense of
duty and worked to create an effective and stable government. He saw himself as a Confucian ruler whose
duty it was to pay attention to the needs of his subjects. He built his capital at Chang’an, which is today
a suburb of Xian. He reduced taxes and during his reign banditry ceased. His legacy was that he not only
brought order to China but that he followed three wise policies:
1. He maintained a well-built and well-run transportation system. In addition to the Grand Canal, he
maintained an extensive road system, which had inns, postal stations and stables. A message could be
sent to the furthest edge of the empire in under 10 days.
2. He imposed the Equal Field System to govern the allocation of land so as to be fair and correct the
failings of the Han rulers who had been unable to curb the greed of the elites. Land was allocated
according to fertility and the needs of those receiving land. The hereditary elites were restricted to
20% of all arable land and 80% was reserved for the peasants. Given the historical greed of the elites,
it was amazing that the Equal Field System stayed in place for a hundred years.
3. The Bureaucracy of Merit reformed the civil service by introducing an Imperial Civil Service Exam,
based on the Confucian Educational System. Like the Equal Field System, it tried to prevent
corruption by the rich and powerful. These reforms meant a restoration of the influence of the scholar
gentry whom the Tang emperors used to counteract the aristocracy and war lords.
Tang rulers also maintained their power by encouraging economic growth, especially the silk industry,
and by promoting trade over the “Silk” roads into Central Asia and Persia.
The Tang Dynasty also saw one of the few women to ever be Empress, Wu Zetian (684-705), an incredible
woman who defied the conventions of the day by seizing power and holding it for over twenty years. Under
the emperor Tang Xuanzong (712-756) China reached its imperial golden age and Tang hegemony reached
all the way to Japan and Korea in the east, Vietnam in the south and central Asia in the west.
Tang decline began in the 750s, during the closing years of Tang Xuanzong's reign. In his early years he had
ruled in true Confucian style and took a strong interest in political and economic affairs. But late in his reign,
he began excessive patronizing of the arts and pursued the pleasures of his palace. His careless, lazy
leadership brought rebellions, the most serious of which was the An Lushan rebellion of 755 which was
only put down with the help of the Uighurs (nomads from Central Asia) who got to sack rebel cities as
payment. The Tang Dynasty never recovered and soon China fell into the same old pattern: warlord landgrabbing, palace conspiracies and peasant rebellions. The glory days of the seventh and eighth centuries
vanished. From 875 to 884, a local warlord, Huang Chao, led a large-scale uprising in which he tried to take
from the rich and redistribute to the poor. In 907, the last Tang emperor abdicated and China became a
China of the North and a China of the South.
The Ten Kingdoms and the Song
In South and Central China, a fifty year warlord period, known as the Ten Kingdoms, was ended in 960
by a scholar-warrior, Song Taizu, who reasserted imperial authority and founded the Song Dynasty
(pronounced Sung). In the North, five dynasties succeeded each other in rapid succession. By 916, the Liao
Empire emerged and dominated Mongolia and Northern China. The Liao were the first Chinese nation to
make Beijing their capital. Their people were called the Khitan and gave their name as the medieval name
of China, Cathay. The Khitan were one of the ancient nomadic tribes of Northern China. They were skilled
artisans and their excellent horse-soldiers posed a serious military threat to the Song dynasty which, for a
century, was forced to pay tribute to the Liao.
Then in the 1110s, the Song made an alliance with a tribe north of the Liao, the Jurchen. This alliance
trapped the Liao between the two and by 1121 the Jurchen had conquered the Liao. The Jurchen were semiagricultural hunters and fisherman. But when they conquered the Liao, they quickly learned Liao culture and
adopted complex civilization. Very quickly they learned that they too could pressure the Song.
It is crucial to understand that the Song Dynasty was never a great military power; rather the Song
placed great emphasis on culture, education, civil administration, industry and the arts. In order to
understand their mindset, it is necessary to remember that the Chinese believed that China was the Middle
Kingdom, culturally superior to its neighbors and obligated to bring harmony and order to the lands around
it. This was accomplished by Tributary Relationships. In this system, subordinate states would show their
“dependent status” by sending envoys bearing gifts to the Imperial Court. Before the emperor, they would
perform the Kowtow, a ritual prostration, in which the envoys would kneel before the emperor and touch
their foreheads to the ground three times. In return the envoys would receive elaborate confirmation of their
authority and gifts even more lavish.
It is important to understand that these Tributary Relationships took place even when the Sung had
little or no military power over their “Tributary States.” This mindset was inherited from the Tang and
the Han, but it is remarkable is that the Song, even in their military weakness, were able to sinicize so many
non-Chinese (like Khitan) by Tributary Relationships. These relationships also laid for basis for trade and
cultural exchange; and also helped to explain the actions of Song Taizu who was determined to avoid the
mistakes that led to the collapse of the Tang. History has called his actions Song Taizu’s Middle Way.
First, he offered warlords retirement with an honorable life of leisure. In simple words, he bought out his
potential enemies. Second, he took a personal interest in government and regarded all civil officials as his
personal, family servants. In exchange for their loyalty, he gave them generous rewards. It also meant that he
favored the Confucian Scholar-Gentry over the nobility and warlords and opened the governmental
bureaucracy to more the capable candidates, who were also well rewarded ($$$) for their services. Third, he
made the government more centralized and placed the army under civilian control.
Song Taizu’s Middle Way had two major flaws. First, his financial policies drained the state treasury; so to
make up the deficit, taxes were raised and the burden fell on the backs of the already overworked peasants.
Second, by placing the army under civilian bureaucrats, he lost his best and most competent military leaders.
His goal had been to prevent the rise of warlords, but what actually happened was a rise of military
inefficiency and battlefield disasters. The result was that Song armies were always large but poorly led. All
these problems led to court struggles and instability. The irony was that, although the Song sought political
harmony, they couldn’t afford it.
Song Taizu died in 976 and his successors presided over a culturally brilliant state. But the catch was,
so to speak that it was a militarily weakened state which continued to be unable to the face increasing threats
from the north. As we just noted, the Song had allied with the Jurchens to overrun the Liao Empire in 1121.
But the Jurchens, who quickly proclaimed their own dynasty, the Jin, realized almost immediately that they
too were able to pressure and take tribute from the Song. In 1127, the Jin captured the Song capital of
Kaifeng and by 1130 had pushed the Song to the Yangtze River. The smaller Song state, however, continued
to survive and flourish culturally, even though they had to pay tribute to the Jin.
But Jin hegemony lasted less than a hundred years. In 1211, the Mongol chieftain Genghis Khan captured
Beijing and by 1234 his son Ögödei controlled most of Jin China. Finally, in 1279, Kublai Khan, grandson
of Genghis Khan, completed the conquest of the Song and proclaimed the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty.
Nevertheless, in spite of their political and military weaknesses, the Song must be remembered as the
most culturally glorious dynasty in Chinese history and perhaps world history as well.
Chinese Economy
During the Post Classical Era, the Chinese food supply increased dramatically because of new foods and
technologies. The most important food crop was Fast Ripening Rice (or Champa Rice), which was
imported from Vietnam (although it originated in India). Instead of being grown dry, Fast Ripening Rice was
grown in Rice Paddies, where constant moisture was better suited for rice plants and allowed two crops a
year. Other new Crops included Leeches, cotton, oranges and sugarcane. New agricultural technologies
included more efficient iron plows and wheelbarrows, harnessed oxen (in the north), harnessed water buffalo
(in the south), better irrigation and enriching the soil with manure and other organic matter. They also began
to use pumps and water wheels (animal and human power) which allowed them to cultivate more land (like
mountainsides). The result was a population surge: from a low point of 45 million in 600 C.E., the population
rose to 50 million by 800, 100 million by 1,000 and 115 million by 1200.
More population meant urbanization or the growth of cities. In Tang times, Chang’an had a population of 2
million; Hangzhou (the later Song capital after the fall of Kaifeng) 1 million. Hangzhou was perhaps the most
remarkable urban center in the Post Classical World. It lay between the Yangtze River and the coast of the
East China Sea. Like Venice, it was a city crisscrossed by canals and bridges and filled with craftsman and
traders who plied (bought and sold) their wares in ten enormous market places. It was a clean city with parks
and gardens. The rich had their pleasure boats and there were even special barges with Hangzhou’s Famous
Singing Girls. There were bathhouses, restaurants, theatres, teahouses and entertainment parks famous for
their jugglers. Marco Polo (the great European traveler from Venice, who would serve Kublai Khan during the
Yuan years) called Hangzhou “the noblest city and the best that is in the world.”
Tang conquests and transportation improvements led to an outburst of commercial expansion and economic
growth. The resulting prosperity meant increasing demand for non-Chinese goods: spices from Indo China,
pearls and incense from India, horses and jade from Central Asia. The Chinese exported their coveted silk,
porcelain and laquerware. During Tang hegemony, China’s trade on the Silk Road flourished but during the
times of Song weakness that trade declined. However, Song times saw China become part of a vast and
complex commercial network stretching along the Pacific coast from Japan and Korea to Southeast Asia.
Naval Technology also developed rapidly in the Post Classical Period, with iron nails, water proofing oils,
canvass, the stern post rudder and the magnetic compass, commonly called “The South Pointing Needle.”
All these improvements dramatically increased the range of sailing ships and opened new and larger markets.
Chinese Junks (both merchant and military) were the best ships in the world and Song Junks would become
important for the Mongols in their maritime expeditions, particularly against Japan. During this period the
port of Guangzhou (Canton) became one of the busiest trading centers in the world. Song cultural ties with
Korea and Japan were made especially strong by trading contacts. Like Eastern Europe was to Byzantium,
and Southeast Asia to India, Korea, Vietnam and Japan were to China.
Economic growth created growing sophistication in commercial organization centering on forms of credit.
Since gold and silver were used in art, copper was used for coinage. But with growing prosperity, there came
to be a copper shortage, and so banks began to issue letters of credit or Flying Cash to facilitate trade
between different locations. Promissory notes (that is, credit or promise to pay at a future date) also began to
appear. And so the government finally was forced to issue paper money when banks and their “Flying Cash”
could not keep up with commercial growth. By 1000 C.E., China was so dependent on paper money that it
could not be banished. This state-printed paper money came complete with serial numbers and warnings to
counterfeiters. But there was a major problem; the government printed money at a value greater than the
government could back up with cash reserves, which led to inflation. Not until the Qing Dynasty would
stringent controls could be put into place.
During Tang and Song times, Chinese artisans began to produce lighter, thinner and highly glazed pottery
called Porcelain. Chinese porcelain was called Chinaware and became the Eurasian standard for porcelain,
as Chinaware came to be in great demand even in areas like the Abbasid state where fine porcelain was
already being produced.
The Chinese also made great strides in metallurgy, discovering the use of Coke, or refined coal, which burnt
much hotter than regular coal. Coal was fine for making iron, but coke allowed Chinese craftsmen to produce
large quantities of steel. Both iron and steel were used from millions of arrowheads produced annually to
structural support for bridges and pagodas.
Gunpowder had been invented in Pre-Classical times by the Daoists, who were looking for medical cures.
But in Tang times Chinese engineers invented such devices as Bamboo Fire Lances, which were primitive
flame-throwers. By 1000, the Chinese were employing primitive bombs and canons and the new Gunpowder
technology was beginning to spread rapidly throughout Eurasia (especially via the Mongols).
Song China was perhaps the most scientifically advanced society of its time. Chinese astronomers greatly
added to the knowledge of the universe; and devised an accurate calendar. In 1088, a Song inventor, Su
Song, invented a chain-driven, water powered mechanical clock. This enormous device (eighty feet high)
told the time, the day of the month and the movement of the moon and certain planets.
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Although printing first becomes common in Sui times, Block Printing with movable type becomes
common in Tang Times. In simple Block Printing the artist carves a reverse image of an entire page onto a
wooden block; then inks the block, and presses a sheet of paper on type. Movable type allows substitution
and is much more efficient. Combined with cheap paper the result were cheap texts.
Remember that internal problems and nomadic incursions brought about the fall of the Han Dynasty which in
turn discredited Confucianism (because it appeared to fail) and opened the door to new ideas and religions
which poured into China. Zoroastrians, Manicheans, Nestorian Christians, Muslims and Mahayana
Buddhists all came via the Silk Roads and all established – to a greater or lesser degree – their
communities. Buddhism was to have the greatest appeal of these Silk Road Religions, and after the
collapse of the Han Dynasty it posed a powerful challenge to traditional Confucian and Daoist thought.
Dunhuang, located on the Silk Road, was a center in Northwest China for early Buddhism. Between
600 and 1000 C.E., hundreds of cave temples became Buddhist centers for monasticism, great libraries and
missionary efforts aimed at China proper. These cave-temples contain hundreds of murals depicting the
Buddha and Bodhisattvas, illustrating the history and teachings of Mahayana Buddhism.
This “Silk Road” Buddhism emphasized ideas that the Buddha would have disowned, such as the Buddha
depicted as a god and savior. Nevertheless Bodhisattvas and monks helped create spirituality by their
prayers and rituals, which, in turn, made it possible for ordinary people to become holy. This resulted in a
syncretic religion called Chan Buddhism. As monasteries grew, they offered enticements for recruitment of
new monks; the best was “one son in a monastery would bring salvation for ten generations of ancestors.”
Moreover, as Buddhism spread deeper into China, its Bodhisattvas tried to make Buddhist concepts more
appealing to the Chinese. For example, they equated dharma (doctrine) with Dao (the way) and nirvana
(personal salvation by release from the wheel of Karma) with Wuwei (Daoist ethic of non competition). Chan
Buddhism had little interest in written texts, but emphasized intuition and sudden flashes of inspiration in
search of spiritual enlightenment. The result was that Buddhist moral standards, sophistication and promise
of Salvation appealed to many Chinese and made a profound impact on Chinese culture.
The impact of Buddhism was demonstrated in 589, when the Sui reunited China with a Confucian
government heavily influenced by Buddhism. The Tang emperors of the early 7th century legitimized their
power by using the Buddhist theory that kings were spiritual agents who led their subjects into Buddhist
spirituality. This worked well in Buddhist populated areas but outraged Confucians and Daoists fought back.
When Tang hegemony weakened the Confucians and Daoists blamed Buddhism for undermining the Chinese
ideals of family and harmony. Tang emperors eventually broke with Buddhism, tried to suppress Buddhist
monasteries and to drive Buddhism out of China. They failed and the more pragmatic Song emperors did not
persecute Buddhism, but gave official support to Confucianism hoping to limit foreign religions.
Nevertheless, Buddhism caused Chinese thinkers to reexamine traditional Confucian doctrine.
As a result the Song Dynasty saw a great revival of Confucianism which paralleled the rising influence of the
scholar gentry. (Remember Tang Taizong and how he helped build the bureaucracy with scholar
bureaucrats whose core loyalty was to Confucianism, not Buddhism.) Thus, new schools were founded
to study and interpret the ancient texts and to prove that the ancient philosophies (especially Daoism and
Confucianism) were superior to the new religions. These schools in turn produced the Neo-Confucianism
which, on one hand (the Confucian), emphasized rank, obligation, deference, traditional rituals, and
patriarchal authority, but on the other hand, still drew great inspiration from Buddhism.
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Zhu Xi (zhoo shee) was the most important Neo Confucian thinker. He argued that virtue could be attained
through knowledge gained from books and observation as well as from examples of wisdom and high
morality. As a Confucian, he stressed proper behavior, social harmony and family values, especially
veneration of ancestors. In his treatise, Family Rituals, he gave detailed instructions for weddings, funerals,
and veneration of ancestor ceremonies; and he emphasized that the highest value for any human being lay in
proper role or conduct.
This re-assertion of Confucian principles was good, but Zhu Xi was also fascinated with Buddhist thought
and discussed less practical matters such as metaphysics and the nature of reality. He argued - like Plato that all things are brought into being by two universal elements: vital (or life) force (qi), and rational
principle (li). He went on to say that the source of rational principle is Tai Ji, or the Great Ultimate
According to Zhu Xi, Tai Ji causes qi to move and change in the physical world, resulting in the division of
the world into two energy modes (yin and yang) and five elements (fire, water, wood, metal, and earth).
Neo Confucianism was important for two reasons: First, it illustrated the deep effect of Buddhism on
Chinese thinking; and Second, it became the standard creed (or belief system) in China and its cultural orbit
(principally Korea and Japan) for the next 500 years.
Social Issues
During Tang and Song times extended family households and male domination of the family were the
accepted norms. In Tang times, the status of women showed signs of improvement: brides and grooms were
about the same age (in stark contrast to India), upper class women enjoyed relative prestige and personal
freedom, mutual divorce was permitted and wives had, in general, more defenses against unjust husbands
than in India. These improving conditions for women reflected the growing effect of Buddhism.
Unfortunately however, with the advent (coming) of Neo-Confucianism, Chinese tradition was used as
justification for greater subordination of women – and later Song times witnessed a dramatic worsening of
conditions for women. Upper class women, whose families were most likely to follow Confucian dictates
and who had in Tang times had more freedoms, were especially subject to new restrictions.
Foot Binding (or the applying of painfully tight binding to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth simply
because it was pleasing to men) was the most obvious new restriction and became established by 1200, but
another example was that dowries (or transfers of parental property at the marriage of daughters), which
historically had to be provided by the husband’s family, now, had to be supplied by the wife’s family. Lower
class women had harder lives and were without doubt second class citizens after males, but were generally
freer from the from the strictures that applied to upper class women.
Early Korean states had long and interwoven ties to China. The first united Korean nation was the Silla,
which formed during the sixth century C.E. During the Seventh century, the Tang conquered much of Korea,
but the Silla rallied and entered into a political compromise by accepting Tributary Status in exchange for the
withdrawal of Chinese forces. [Remember: Tributary Status meant that the Koreans regularly presented gifts to
the Chinese Court and accepted the Emperor as their overlord. In return they received confirmation of their
authority and lavish gifts from the Chinese Court.] But in reality Korea was an independent state, and this not
only opened trading opportunities for Korean merchants in China, but also fostered amicable relations and
facilitated cultural exchange. The Chinese Cultural influence on Korea was enormous: The Korean Capital at
Kumsong was modeled after Chang’an. Confucianism appealed to the aristocracy but Chan Buddhism
appealed to the peasants and commoners. Korea however never established a Bureaucracy of Merit and
remained an oligarchy dominated by the ruling class.
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When the Tang collapsed in the mid eighth century, the Silla also collapsed. In 936 Wang Kon unified
Korea and founded the Koryo Dynasty (from which the name Korea derives). The Koryo rulers maintained
close relations with the Song until they were overrun by the Mongols in 1230. The Koryo won back their
freedom, but collapsed in the mid 1300s. Some think that block printing with movable type was invented
during the Koryo period. In 1392, a third Korean nation arose, when Yi Song-gye again unified Korea and
founded the Yi Kingdom or the Joseon (Choson Period). The Yi generally maintained close relations with the
Mings (who drove out the Mongols) and remained independent until conquered by Japan in 1910.
The Chinese also heavily influenced the Vietnamese, but their relationship was never as friendly as with
Korea. After Tang conquest, the Vietnamese rose up and drove out the Chinese. The Vietnamese modeled
the Chinese and established a Chinese administrative system and Bureaucracy of Merit. Moreover, the
Vietnamese elite prepared for their careers in a Confucian educational system. Buddhism was introduced not
from China but India - and won a large following. It is important to note that this Buddhism was Theravada
and that many Vietnamese retained their indigenous religions in preference to Chinese customs or Buddhism.
The status of women was radically different from that of Chinese or most other East Asian women. To be
sure, Vietnam was a male dominated society but women still played a prominent role in society and even
dominated local and regional markets, participating openly in business ventures closed to women in China.
Only in Post Classical East Africa and parts of Europe did women have anything near this status or
personal freedom.
The earliest inhabitants of Japan were nomadic peoples from northeast Asia who migrated to Japan about
200,000 years ago bringing with them their indigenous culture, language and traditions. They built an
agricultural society and, by the beginning of the Common Era, many small states (dominated by aristocratic
clans) had emerged. Slowly one clan or group of people, the Yamato, began to centralize authority.
Between 250 and 700 C. E., the Yamato were able to claim imperial authority and established a court just
like the Tang, including a Chinese style bureaucracy, an Equal Field System and official support for both
Confucianism and Buddhism. In 710, they moved the Capital to Nara, near modern Kyoto, and tried to make
it a replica of Chang’an.
This Nara Period lasted until 794. Although Chinese culture was more pervasive and influential than at
any other time in Japanese history, nevertheless Japan - like Korea - did not lose its distinctive
identity. Case in point: Japan embraced Buddhism and Confucianism but continued to observe its own
native religion, Shinto, which combined the veneration of ancestors along with the worship of various deities
and nature spirits.
In 794 the emperor transferred his capital from Nara to Heian (modern Kyoto). For the next 400 years this
Heian Period became the seat of a sophisticated society in which the emperor was recognized as the
supreme political authority. But unlike Chinese emperors, Japanese emperors rarely ruled, but served as
ceremonial figureheads and symbols of authority. The effective power lay in the hands of the Fujiwara
family, which controlled the state from behind the throne. Because the emperors did not rule, they were
rarely deposed or killed in times of unrest. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the emperor
became the symbol of Japanese unity: factions might come and go, but the emperor remained.
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It is also important to remember that, during the Heian period, Chinese cultural influence, Confucian ideals
of government and Buddhist values continued to permeate Japanese society. In addition, Japanese Literature
modeled Chinese; boys were educated in Chinese, read the Chinese classics and wrote in the Chinese
language. Even Imperial court records were kept in Chinese. The Japanese also borrowed Chinese characters
and used them for Japanese words and; they even adapted some Chinese characters to form syllabic script, in
which symbols represented syllables, rather than words in Chinese and single sounds in alphabetic scripts.
Japanese women of the upper classes were mostly literate and made many contributions to literature.
Murasaki Shikibu, a lady in waiting at the Heian Court, wrote the Tale of the Gengi, which is a story about
a Prince Gengi and his friends who devote themselves to an ultra refined lifestyle: mixing subtle perfumes,
composing beautiful and moving poetry and wooing sophisticated women. The Tale of the Gengi was also a
meditation on the passing of time and the sorrows that time brings to sensitive human beings. This
melancholy (sad) tone gives us a unique glimpse into lives of the aristocracy. Like most Japanese women,
Shikibu was not allowed to learn Chinese, so she wrote this elegant novel in Japanese.
Despite the cultural achievements of Heian period, Japan remained a politically fragmented society and
warlike land. The nobility undermined the Equal Field System and transformed Japan into a land of vast
estates under their control. By the late 11th Century, the Taira and Minamoto clans overshadowed all the
other clans and fought a civil war in the mid 12th century in which the Minamoto emerged victorious. The
Minamoto did not abolish imperial authority, but claimed the right to rule in the name of the emperor. They
installed their leader, Minamoto no Yoritomo as Shogun – or military governor – and established their
government at Kamakura, near modern Tokyo, while the emperor remained at Kyoto.
Minamoto victory led to the Kamakura (1185 – 1333) and Muromachi (1336 – 1573) periods. They were
Japan’s medieval age, falling between the Heian period of Chinese influence and the early modern era,
instituted by Tokugawa Ieasyu. During this period Japan (like Europe) developed a complex feudal order in
which provincial lords held local power and controlled both the land and economic affairs. In essence, they
replaced Chinese bureaucracy and refinement with military skill and discipline. During the feudal era,
the Japanese repulsed two Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281. Although sudden storms or typhoons (called
Kamikaze or Divine Wind) actually saved Japan, Shinto priests felt that the storms were a divine sign and
the Mongol failure left a profound impact on Japan. The Japanese became convinced of their military
superiority and deeply concerned about threats to their security posed by China. In short, Japan became
convinced of the necessity for strong Shogun leadership.
This obsession with strength was reflected in the Japanese equivalent of the European knight. The Samurai
were professional warriors, who served the provincial lords. Samurai cultivated military skill, strength,
courage and a spirit of aggression. The lords relied on the Samurai to keep their power and in return the
Samurai were supported by agricultural wealth, which was produced by the peasants but controlled by the
provincial lords. The Samurai lived by a code called Bushido, which made the virtue of loyalty to one’s
lord the supreme virtue (just like Europe). If a Samurai fell from honor he was expected to end his own life
by ritual disembowelment or seppuku (or more commonly called hara-kiri)
Thus, although Japan had taken its original inspiration from the China and the Tang Empire, Japanese
political and social order developed along very different lines than the Middle Kingdom. Nevertheless, four
Chinese values remained: the Confucian ideal, the Buddhist Religion, the Chinese System of Writing
(along with its adaptations) and the idea of centralized imperial rule.
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The Last Great Nomadic Incursions
The Thirteenth Century is sometimes called the Pax Mongolica when Mongol armies swept across Asia and
Europe and created the world’s largest empire – of all time. The Mongols have often been pictured as savage
and backwards barbarians ferociously massacring whole populations. And yet, at the peak of their power, the
Mongol khans controlled a vast empire in which once hostile peoples lived in peace and most religions were
tolerated. More importantly for world history, the Mongol expansion laid foundations for human interaction
on a hitherto unknown scale. Lastly, the Mongols marked the last nomadic challenge to sedentary
nations. After the year 1405, nomadic incursions come to and end.
Nomadic economy and Society
Nomadic society evolved in the arid (dry) conditions of the Steppes of Central Asia, grasslands with little
rain, so that no extensive agriculture was possible. As a result, grazing animals (especially horses and sheep)
became important to steppe nomads. Moreover, these nomads did not wander aimlessly, but followed
migratory cycles and climatic conditions so that they could hunt and their animals graze. They lived off the
meat, milk and hides of their animals; and they used animal bones for tools and animal dung for fuel. They
made shoes and clothes from sheep’s wool, which was also used to make their portable tents-on-wheels
called yurts. They were famous saddle-made cheese, yoghurt and fermented mare’s milk, called Kumis.
Although the basis of their economy was herding, by the first century B.C.E. they had established large
settled populations producing millet, barley and wheat. These scattered settlements grew and produced
leather goods, iron weapons, jewelry, ceramics and tools. These nomads were natural traders, especially the
Turks, and they took advantage of their location along the Silk Roads.
Their ancient religion, dating to Neolithic times, was a kind of Animism called Shamanism. Since these
nomads lived “out of doors and under the stars”, they came to believe that all life was produced by a force
separate from physical life and that natural phenomena and objects such as rocks, trees, the wind, bodies of
water, etc., all were alive and had souls.
Their priests were called Shamans who were believed to have supernatural powers to communicate with
spirits and nature gods and propitiate them by incantation and worship. Thus, Shamans acted as
intermediaries and informed people about the will of the gods. In the early centuries of the Common Era,
Turkish and Mongolian peoples were strongly influenced by Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism, and
Buddhism. The result was a series of syncretic religions that combined these religions with Shamanism and
continued the ministry of the Shamans.
Mongol society had two social classes: nobles (or chieftans) and commoners. Moreover, unlike almost every
other culture we have studied, there was great fluidity of classes. Tribal chiefs and warriors would pass their
status on to their sons, but if their sons were not great warriors, they could lose their status – and conversely,
commoners who were great warriors could become tribal chiefs. It is also important to note that tribal
chiefs did little direct governing except in war when their authority was absolute – and we will see how
this would hurt and even crippled Mongol states.
From the 700s of the Common Era, the Mongols began to organize confederations under the leadership of
Khans (a Turkish meaning ruler or prince). Khans (like lesser tribal chiefs) rarely ruled directly, but ruled
through the tribal chiefs. But don’t forget that in times of conflict and when organized on a large scale,
the khans and their armies produced tremendous outbursts of military power.
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Their two best weapon technologies were their cavalry and their archers who made up much of that cavalry.
And in spite of their lack of complex societal skills, these nomadic armies were brilliantly coordinated, so
that they were more than a match for the civilized states they invaded. Their great weakness was that, once
the campaign was over, their coordination ceased and the armies melted away.
The Mongol Empires
The Mongols themselves seem to have originated around Lake Baikal, an area (since prehistoric times) that
was a center of cultural exchange between people of the steppes and peoples of the forests. In spite of their
impact on the history of the classical civilizations (their incursions against Rome, the Han and the Gupta), the
Mongols rarely played any role in state building until the 13th century.
The unifier of the Mongols was Temujin, born about 1157 (some say 1162) into a noble family. Temujin
means ironworker and it was said that at his birth his fist was clutching a blood clot, which the shaman
declared was an omen that Temujin would be a heroic warrior. His father, Yesugei, had been a great warrior
and tribal leader who had forged alliances between several Mongol clans, but had been murdered by Tartar
rivals. Temujin had a difficult youth in poverty and in evading would be assassins. There are many stories of
his courage, bravery and daring, even as a teenager, but, whatever their accuracy, he slowly grew in power
and mastered the art of steppe diplomacy. In 1206, he brought all the Mongol tribes into a single
confederation and was declared the Great Khan (Genghis, or Chinggis). Some say it means "precious
warrior", where others give it the meaning of "spirit of light" and our book says “universal ruler”).
Genghis Khan thoroughly reorganized Mongol political structure and established a powerful empire. He
established his capital at Karakorum, about 200 miles west of the modern Mongolian capital of
Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator), where he built a luxurious palace and a command center for his empire. He
chose his administrators and bureaucrats based on talent and loyalty. He disbanded the old tribal military
units and organized new units in which men no longer fought with cousins and clan members but with men
from other clans and under officers chosen by the Khan. He forged his army into a deadly fighting machine
whose technology was based on horsemanship and accurate archery from the horses. He also used
psychological warfare. (If any enemy city surrendered without resistance, their lives were spared and generous
terms were given; if they resisted, they were ruthlessly slaughtered.).
His Mongol army first conquered Northern China, capturing the Jurchin capital by 1215 and all of North
China by 1220. Remember the Song continued to rule in south China. He then sought to open trade and
diplomatic relations with the Saljuq leader, Khwaraam Shah, the ruler of Afghanistan and Persia. His
overture was rejected and his envoys were murdered in 1218.
In 1219 Genghis Khan personally led his armies into Persia, shattered the shah’s armies and pursued the shah
to an island in the Caspian Sea where he (mercifully) died before being captured. The Great Khan then
wreaked terrible destruction of the conquered land, destroying Persian cities, massacring large populations,
demolishing buildings and destroying the Qanat irrigation systems. It took Persia centuries to recover.
By the time of his death in 1227 (he fell from his horse), Chinggis Khan had laid the foundation of a mighty
empire. The new Great Khan was his third son, Ögödei, who ruled the Mongols till 1241 and beautified the
capital at Karakorum. In the east, his armies moved into almost all of northern and central China and forced
the Koryo Dynasty to accept Tributary status. Ögödei also ordered his nephew, Batu Khan, to invade Europe
and from 1240 to 1242 the Mongols crushed the Kievan state and pushed into Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary
and Poland.
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Ögödei’s death touched off a power struggle in the family and Batu stopped his invasion of Eastern Germany
to return to Karakorum. Even so in the 1250s the Mongols annexed Tibet. In 1258 another grandson,
Hügelü, conquered Baghdad, destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate and captured the Caucasus kingdoms. Thus
by 1260, the Mongols ruled an empire that stretched from Poland to Korea and from Siberia to
The last Khan to rule the entire empire was Möngke who died in 1260. This touched off a civil war among
the nephews and grandsons of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire very soon split into four parts or
The Khanate of the Great Khan
The Khanate of the Great Khan ruled China and Mongolia. It was Genghis Khan’s grandson, Khubilai, the
most brilliant of Genghis’ heirs, who consolidated Mongol rule in China. In 1276, he captured the Song
capital at Hangzhou. By 1279, there was no resistance left and Khubilai proclaimed himself emperor and
founded the Yuan (yoo Ahn) Dynasty, which ruled China until its collapse in 1368. However, Khubilai was
unable to conquer Vietnam, Southeast Asia or Japan. His two attempts to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281
were both foiled by typhoons. The Japanese defenders attributed their continued independence to the
kamikaze or divine winds.
These divine winds would be the basis in World War II for the Kamikaze pilots. Marco Polo, the Venetian
traveler, praised him for his generosity toward the poor and his efforts to build roads. Although he had little
direct control over his cousins in the other Khanates, he was still elected the Great Khan and his death in
1294 marked the high point of Mongol Expansion.
In governing China, the Mongols stood aloof from the population over which they ruled and resisted
assimilation into Chinese culture. They promoted Buddhism and supported Daoists, Muslims and Christians.
They outlawed intermarriage between Mongols and Chinese, forbade Chinese from learning Mongolian,
brought foreign administrators into China and put them in charge, dismissed Confucian scholars, dismantled
the civil service examinations and educational system, but they tolerated all cultural and religious traditions
in China. Khubilai’s fourth wife, his favorite, Chabi, was a Nestorian Christian.
The Mongols continued to follow their shamanist religion but they were enchanted with Tibetan Buddhism
because of its magic and supernatural power resembling the shamanism of the Mongols and because
Buddhist leaders tried hard to court Mongol favor. They called this Shamanistic Buddhism Lamaism. It is
interesting that 50% of the population of Mongolia today is Tibetan Buddhist.
The Khanate of Chagatai – Timur-i-lang
The Khanate of Chagatai was named for a son of Genghis Khan, Chagatai, who ruled over ancestral lands in
Central Asia. For 250 years the Chagatai (Jagadai) Khanate maintained its vitality and posed a threat the
China’s western frontier. It’s most famous Khan was Tamerlane, a self-made conqueror. He was born in
1336 near Samarkand (in a place called Kesh now Shakhrisabz in Uzbekistan). He claimed descent from Genghis
Khan who was his model. A courageous warrior and skilled diplomat he increased his power and eliminated
his rivals so that by 1370 he controlled the Khanate of Chagatai and built a magnificent capital at Samarkand.
(Tamerlane comes from the Turkish Timur-i-lang or Timur the Lame) He spent the rest of his life leading his
armies of conquest.
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Unlike Genghis Khan, he seemed more interested in conquest and looting than in building an empire. His
armies (which were multiethnic) were noted for their savagery and cruelty. He would leave huge pyramids of
human heads as monuments of his conquests and it is estimated that his armies killed seventeen million
people or about five percent of the (then) world’s population. Historians have speculated that he had a great
interest in trade and a grand plan to reactivate the Silk Road, the central land route, and make it the monopoly
link between Europe and China. Between 1380 and 1389 he conquered Persia, Mesopotamia, Armenia and
Georgia. In 1392 He invaded Russia and attacked the Golden Horde. On his was back he put down a revolt in
Persia and massacred thousands.
In 1398 he attacked Northern India and campaigned along the Ganges capturing Delhi. After the Battle of
Pinipat in1398, he massacred 100,000 captured Indian soldiers. (As we saw earlier, he did not incorporate the
Delhi Sultanate into his empire.) In 1401 he captured Syria slaughtering 20,000 residents of Damascus. The
next year he defeated the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I at the Battle of Ankara and added the Anatolian part of
the Ottoman Empire to his own empire. He was leading an army to attack China when he died in 1405.
Like most steppe leaders, Timur ruled through tribal leaders and relied on existing bureaucrats to collect
taxes. Moreover his heirs fought over his empire, which was divided among his sons and grandsons. By the
early 1500s his empire was incorporated by the Mughals in India, Safavids in Persia and Ottoman Turks in
Southwest Asia, while the Khanate of Chagatai reverted to its territory in Central Asia.
The Khanate of Golden Horde
The Golden Horde dominated the steppes of Russia and these Mongols were mostly Tartars. They were first
led by Batu Khan who overran Russia between 1237 and 1241 and then attacked Poland, Hungary and
eastern Germany. Batu’s successors maintained control of northern Russia (which they considered unattractive
because of its forests) until the mid 15th century, when the Princes of Moscow threw off their authority. Their
decline was also hastened by their defeat at the hands of Tamerlane. Khans descended from the Golden
Horde ruled in the Crimea until almost 1800. Modern Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan consider themselves
descendent nations of the Khanate of the Golden Horde.
The Ilkhanate of Persia.
Khubilai’s brother Hülegü captured Baghdad in 1258 and, after a great massacre, established the Ilkhanate of
Persia. At its greatest extent, the Ilkhanate was composed of is today Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan,
Georgia, Turkmenistan, Turkey, western Afghanistan, and southwestern Pakistan. The Mongols found,
however, that they needed the Persian as administrators, as the Mongols cared only about taxes and order. In
1295 the Ilkhan Ghazan (Mahmud Ghazan) converted to Islam which sparked large-scale massacres of
Christians and Jews. Slowly, both Islam and Persia absorbed the Mongols.
The Pax Mongolica and Mongol Decline
The Mongols had created an empire by force, but they maintained it by employing administrators of very
high quality. Perhaps the best known example was Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, who later wrote of
his experiences and who served as the Khan’s administrator in the city of Yangzhou, as well as many other
diplomatic posts. Uighur Turks served as clerks, secretaries and administrators. Arab and Persian Muslims
also served Mongols in similar capacities. Skilled artisans were often sent to Karakorum and became
permanent residents.
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The Mongols worked to secure trade routes, to ensure safety of merchants and to maintain good order for
traveling merchants, ambassadors and missionaries. The result was a great increase of long distance trade in
Eurasia. Ironically, the Pax Mongolica also helped spread bubonic plague which first broke out in China and
within 20 years had spread to Europe where it was known as the Black Death.
All four Mongol Khanates maintained diplomatic relations with Korea, Vietnam, India and Europe. They
encouraged resettlement to bring needed skilled artisans and educated individuals from other peoples to
supply the skills they lacked. The Mongols often adopted and adapted from their conquered subjects. Uighur
Turkish became their written script. They created a law code (the Yasa), which was borrowed from several
cultures. From the Chinese, they learned the use of paper currency and they created an elaborate postal
system called the Yam, which was really an elaborate network or couriers who carried messages on
horseback, rapidly covering vast distances.
Nevertheless, a Chinese proverb summarized the long-term problem the Mongols faced: “You can conquer
an empire on horseback, but you cannot govern an empire on horseback.” By 1300, their Empire had
peaked and began to fall apart. The collapse of Ilkhanate in Persia came about because of excessive spending
and overexploitation of the peasantry, added to the failure of the Ilkhan’s paper money to offset his debts,
factional struggles in the leadership and the failure of the last khan to produce and heir. In the 1330s, the
Black Death ravaged the Ilkhanate killing the last il-khan Abu Sa'id and his sons in 1335; very shortly the
Ilkhanate of Persia collapsed.
The Mongols began to decline in China too. Paper money lost value; factional fighting and power struggles
weakened the Mongols from the 1320s. The Bubonic plague was the last straw. It first broke out in southwestern China in the 1330s. In ten years it spread to all China, central Asia, southwest Asia and Europe. The
resulting weakness gave Chinese strength to resist and the Mongols were driven back to the steppes in 1368.
The Ottoman Turks
After the Mongol conquest of Persia, large number of nomadic Turks migrated from central Asia to the
Ilkhanate and beyond to the territories in Anatolia that the Seljuk Turks had seized from the Byzantine
Empire after Manzikert. In the late 1200s, one leader named Osman carved out a small state for himself in
Northwestern Anatolia. In 1299, Osman declared independence from the Saljuq sultan and launched a
campaign to build a state at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. After every successful campaign he
attracted more and more followers, who came to be known as Osmanlis or Ottomans. In 1326, they captured
the Byzantine city of Bursa and made it their capital. Soon was became a major religious and commercial
During the 1350s the Ottomans gained a foothold across the Dardanelles and poured into the Balkan
Peninsula. They captured the old Greco-Roman City of Adrianople and made it their European capital.
Because of European economic competition, political fragmentation, exploitation of the peasants and
ineffective government, the Byzantines lost strength and by the 1380s the Ottoman Turks were the most
powerful nation in the Balkans. They were poised to capture Constantinople.
However as we have seen, in 1402, Tamerlane shattered the Ottoman army at the Battle of Ankara. He
captured the Sultan, Bayezid I who was kept in captivity and well-treated but Tamerlane did not follow up
his victory and, coupled with Bayezid’s sons struggling for power, the Byzantine Empire was given another
fifty years of life. Nevertheless, the Ottomans recovered and continued to press Byzantium and their capital
at Constantinople. The campaign culminated in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II, known as Mehmed the
Conqueror, captured the city of Constantinople and brought to an end the Empire of the Second Rome.
Mehmed made Constantinople his capital and renamed it Istanbul.
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For general interest:
(1) In 1941, a Russian scientist, M. M. Gerasimov, was given permission to examine the remains of Timur.
Having only a skeleton left, the scientist described a Mongoloid man about 5 feet 8 inches. He also
confirmed Tamerlane's lameness, which had by tradition had been received by arrow wounds he had received
in battle while stealing sheep in his twenties. Tradition says these wounds left him lame in the right leg and
with a stiff right arm for the rest of his life. In his book The Face Finder, Gerasimov explains how he was
able to reconstruct exact likenesses of Timur from a careful consideration of his skull.
(2) Different sources indicate that Timur is a man with extraordinary intelligence - not only intuitive, but
intellectual. Even though he did not know how to read or write, he spoke two or three languages including
Persian and Turkic and liked to be read history at mealtimes. He had aesthetic appreciation in buildings and
garden. It has been said that he loved art so much that he could not help stealing it! The Byzantine palace
gates of the Ottoman capital of Bursa were carried off to Samarkand.
(3) Timur was known to be an avid Chess player. He is reputed to have invented Tamerlane Chess, a
description of which can be found on any Internet search engine
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