Chinggis Khan's Mobilization and Conquest
At one point in time, there was an unlikely empire builder that built an empire that rivaled some of the greatest kingdoms in history. Chinggis Khan of Mongolia created an Empire that was able to impose its supremacy on large swats of territory in Eurasia, including Russia, Persia, China, Korea, and all of Central Asia. Khan’s army harassed the Japanese shogunate in the East, and sent a naval expedition to exotic lands as far as Java.
One of the key factors in the unprecedented success of Chinggis Khan was the creation of a tribal federation that united disparate tribes in Central Asia. This strategy enabled him to unite a diverse populace. At the age of 40 Chinggis Khan was the undisputed ruler of Mongolia. He transformed a group of bickering tribes into a cohesive, disciplined, and fearless army.
Apparently, Chinggis Khan was a brilliant administrator and military commander in order for him to control a large territory, and still manage to control the military leaders coming from different tribes steeped in different cultures and belief systems. He organized his soldiers into units of ten. The end result was not only the creation of a new identity for each soldier; he was also able to break tribal loyalty. The soldiers are now loyal to their leader and to his fellow comrade in arms.
The success of the Mongol horde was attributed to excellent leadership, military strategy, and brutal tactics. The effect of the Mongol horde descending on hapless territory was not much different to the successful campaign of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. These conquerors are able to defeat their enemies without fighting a single battle. Kings and governors of distant lands find it more prudent to surrender rather than to engage in a long and drawn out battle with the Mongol horde.
The great Khan ruled his empire from Karakorum, Mongolia. He delegated his authority through his successor, a man named Ogodei. In the latter part of the empire’s history Ogodei’s brother ruled Turkestan, Russia, and Persia.
The death of Chinggis Khan did not stop the expansion of his empire. His successors conquered Korea, North China, Kiev, Russia, and Baghdad in Persia. They were able to sustain the Mongol Empire through a sophisticated courier system, wherein riders cover 200 miles per day. They also developed a written language for the purpose of communication with colonies outside Mongolia.
Yelu Chucai's Views and Policies
One of the most dramatic accomplishments of the Mongol Empire was the conquest of Northern China. But it did not take long for the Mongols to realize that they needed the support of the locals to sustain their rule in a foreign country. One of the most notable supporters was Chucai was a Sinicized Khitan of royal lineage. He became the primary mediator between Chinggis Khan and the Chinese leaders.
Due to Yelu Chucai’s brilliant mind, the Mongols were able to extract a great deal of tribute money from the Chinese. Chucai persuaded them not to destroy China and turn it into a pastureland for the Mongol Empires burgeoning herd of horses, sheep, and goats. Chucai created an efficient taxation system to the delight of the Mongol warlords.
Kublai Khan's Beijing
Kublai Khan made a dramatic decision to transfer his headquarters from Mongolia to Beijing. Apparently, Kublai Khan was enamored with Chinese culture. In fact, he even adopted Chinese court ceremonies. While his predecessors spent most of their time among the herds, Kublai Khan made a deliberate decision to stay in Beijing. Nevertheless, he maintained a complex balancing act when it comes to Chinese and Mongol cultures. He created a law that forbids Mongols from marrying Chinese nationals. His services were appreciated, especially when it comes to the transition from the Jin Dynasty to the new Yuan Dynasty.
Yuan Dynasty: Consolidation, Government and Class Structure
Kublai Khan named his reign as the Yuan dynasty. The term Yuan was a fitting description because it means origins in the Chinese language. He consolidated his rule over China by subjugating the Southern Song territories. But after he successfully annexed their territories to the Yuan Dynasty, Khan decided to place Southern Song people at the bottom of his organization. The hierarchy system eventually became the new class system in China. At the top of the pyramid were the Mongols. At the second level were the Mongol allies. At the third level were people from Northern Chinese. At the fourth and bottom level were the men from the Southern Song area.
Toghto and His Policies
Under Kublai Khan the Chinese examination system was abolished. However, it was later revived through the work of an adviser named Toghto. Although the Chinese examination system similar to present day Civil Service exam was restored through Toghto's influence, it never regained its prestige, when it was still under the control of the Song Dynasty. The examination system was not effective because the Mongol warlords favored military officials to rule key areas of government.
During the reign of the Yuan dynasty a natural disaster wreak havoc on the Mongol Empire's Chinese rule. The dikes of the Yellow River collapsed; therefore there was no way to control the powerful current of water that flowed north of Shandong and the other side flowed towards the Grand Canal. The inability to control the flow of water made it impossible to bring in shipment of grains coming in from the South. The only option available to them was to ship the grains by sea. However, the pirate Fan Guozhen terrorized the waters knowing fully well that the Mongols are masters of the plains but terrible seafarers when it comes to naval combat. As a result the Chinese people suffered greatly because of this incident. Toghto proposed the digging of a new canal. It eventually resolved the crisis but the cost forced the economy into a tailspin as inflation rates became uncontrollable.
Fluctuation in Population and socio-economic changes (e.g. Women)
The significant fluctuation in population was a reflection of internal problems that was besetting China. The population growth moved up and down drastically. For example, there were 108 million Chinese people in 1220 A.D. but this figure declined to 75 million in 1229 A.D. There were 87 million in 1252 A.D. but this was reduced significantly to 67 million in 1381 A.D. The drastic changes were due to the effect of warfare and plagues that did not only affect China but European and Asian countries as well.
The Yuan Dynasty had a negative effect on Chinese women. Chinese women abhorred the Mongol custom of levirate, wherein the men inherited their dead brother’s widow. In the past, the conjugal property was given to the wife after the death of her husband. However, under Mongol rule, the property of the wife is always bound to the family of the husband whom she married.
Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Pure Land and Chan Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism
The Yuan Dynasty exhibited tolerance over all religions. In fact, the empire granted tax exemptions to all major religions operating within China. Nevertheless, it was Tibetan Buddhism that became the official religion of the Yuan Dynasty. Nevertheless, Daoism remained a dominant force and had many followers. The same thing can be said about Pure Land Buddhism. Chan Buddhism remained a relevant religion in China, especially when Yelu Chucai became a convert into Chan Buddhism.
Religion offered solace and an avenue for intellectual pursuits for some people. But the scholars who were revered members of society before the Mongol invasion had to find a way to survive in a new culture that favored military prowess over intellectual pursuits. A problem personalized by Gong Kai. Many of them retreated into schools where they teach aspiring students. Others found refuge in private academies that offered Neo-Confucianism. Others turned to drama, like the venerated Wang Meng.
Decline of the Yuan Dynasty
Inefficient governance and open rebellion precipitated the slow decline of the Yuan Dynasty. One of the most successful rebellions was the one headed by the White Lotus Society. The White Lotus Society bolstered its ranks by attracting the malcontents of Chinese society. Due to their persistence, the Yuan Dynasty was unable to take effective control of many parts of Central and Southern China.
In the beginning the Yuan Dynasty was able to suppress the rebellion because of the expert advice of Toghto. Toghto's primary strategy was to quell the rebellion using Chinese soldiers. But Toghto was relieved of duty. During his absence, the rebels and the state's forces went head-to-head pillaging, murdering villagers along the way.
The lack of control was exacerbated by the demands of local commanders to be given more autonomy in ruling their domain. At the end, the central government in Beijing was reduced into another military outpost. In other words, the Khan was no longer the supreme and undisputed ruler of China.
The final defeat came from the hands of former Buddhist initiate named Zhu Yuanxhang. His major strategy was to develop strong ties with the former Chinese elites. He persuaded them that his goal was to restore China's former imperial rule. In 1368, Yuanxhang was able to defeat the Mongol warlords and the Mongol court was compelled to flee to Mongolia. Yuanxhang established a new dynasty in Nanjing. The Mongol Empire's legacy to the Chinese people was the integration of North and South China. The Mongol leaders inadvertently taught future Chinese emperors the importance of a strong central government. This is the lesson that the founders of the Ming Dynasty took to heart.