Evoking The Empire That Refuses To Die

The Mongol Empire may be forgotten in the West, but it was Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai who laid the foundations of modern China   

We all know that 1215 is an important date. Not many know that it is also important for two events that had nothing to do with King John, and with far wider significance. In 1215, the Mongols took the city we now call Beijing, the key to a much wider empire. And 1215 — September 23 to be precise — also marks the 800th birthday of the man who took the Mongol Empire to its peak and defined modern China: Kublai Khan.

Kublai is well-known to English speakers, because of Coleridge’s poem about Kublai’s “stately pleasure dome”, as decreed in his first capital Xanadu. His opium-induced vision sounds too weird to be true. But Shang-du (Upper Capital), to give it its Chinese name, is a real place a few hours drive north of Beijing, and anyway it is not Kublai’s prime claim to fame. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan, who had taken Beijing on his way to what would become the greatest land empire in history. At the time of Genghis’s death in 1227, it stretched from north China to today’s Iraq. Under Kublai, it doubled again, until one family held nominal sway over a good deal of Eurasia, perhaps one-fifth of all humanity.

I gave a talk recently at which someone asked: “Why didn’t they tell us about this in school?” Well, they should, because it is one of history’s most startling truths, and because it explains so much about Asia, particularly China, today.
It started with young Genghis as a teenager fleeing rivals in northern Mongolia in the late 12th century, when the feuding Mongol clans were hardly known at all outside their homeland. He survived, and thrived because he was a leader of genius. It took him 20 years to unite his clans, join with other Turkic groups, and found a nation. That was in 1206, at which point Genghis’s genius began to emerge. To rule a nation is different from ruling clans. He needed the trappings of government, with bureaucrats and laws and tax receipts, and filled the need by ordering a script from a captured scribe. This “Uighur writing” is still in use in Inner Mongolia, now part of China.  

Herding is a tough way of life, even today, with winter temperatures plunging to 40 below (the point at which Celsius and Fahrenheit coincide), ice-storms that kill animals by the million and few luxuries. Back then, the only currency was loot, and it was Genghis who provided it, by turning outwards. His first target was China, then divided into four substantial empires: the Tanguts, Jin, Song, and Tibet, with several other smaller areas, Yunnan being one. Genghis led his new army across the Gobi to achieve something unprecedented for nomadic cavalry, namely the taking of cities. Chinese cities were well defended by walls, engines of war and big armies. For the Mongols, the main difficulty was taking the first city, which was today’s Yinchuan on the Yellow River, in 1209. Genghis learned fast, displaying remarkable leadership, which is why he still fascinates historians, most recently Frank McLynn, whose Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World is published next month (Bodley Head, £25). With one city taken, the Mongols acquired new recruits by the ten thousand, loot to pay them, and siege technology in the form of huge bows and catapults. After taking the Jin capital, Beijing, Genghis’s army became a juggernaut, an unrivalled, multi-disciplinary force of Mongol cavalry and Chinese weapons.

By chance, the times and conditions were just right for conquest. A little later, and gunpowder would have stopped them dead. And cavalry was the perfect force, because, unlike an army of foot-soldiers, they did not need lines of supplies. They had their fuel with them, in the form of grass. Every man had spare mounts, and a carpet of fuel, in the form of the Asian grasslands, invited them westward, all the way to Syria and the Russian steppes.  

Along the way, the Mongols also acquired an ideology. As animists, they believed in countless nature spirits — of mountains, springs, rivers, trees — all under the aegis of their highest deity, Tengri, the Blue Sky. This was the god not only of the Mongols but of many other Inner Asian groups as well. A relic of this belief is to be seen today in the piles of rocks and pebbles, known as ovoos, that cap almost any hill or mountain. Their litters of offerings — empty vodka bottles, outdated banknotes, bits of blue silk — make them look like little rubbish dumps. If you come to one, you circle it three times clockwise, and add something to the pile, in deference to Tengri. The word also refers to weather, with a pairing similar to our Heaven/the heavens.

Traditionally, Tengri (Blue Heaven) was a remote entity, whose will might be interpreted by shamans. But Genghis’s success suggested that he was especially favoured, an idea that strengthened as the empire grew. Genghis’s heir, his third son Ogedei, turned it into a justification for yet more conquests, asserting that the whole world, of which they had not an inkling, had in fact been granted to the Mongols, and that it was their destiny to make everyone aware of this astonishing fact. It was Ogedei who sent the Mongol armies yet further, to Baghdad, to the shores of the Mediterranean, to southern Russia, to Poland, and the inviting grasslands of Hungary.    

Why stop there? Leaders across Western Europe trembled, talked of Christian unity, and froze like deer caught in headlights. Luckily for them, in 1241, back in Mongolia, Ogedei died, and the Mongol armies pulled back to take part in the struggle for succession, leaving a wilderness of burned towns and rotting bodies. They never returned, perhaps because they had discovered that the Hungarian grasslands were not large enough to fuel such a vast army.

Meanwhile, southern China remained untaken. Following a nasty family feud, the succession settled on the line of Genghis’s youngest son, Tolui, who was married to one of the most extraordinary women of the age, Sorkaktani. She, like the empire, deserves to be better known. Tolui died, but she, brilliantly combining patience and influence, saw her four sons become masters of the Mongolian universe. One (Hulegu) ruled Persia, one (Mönkhe) took over Mongolia itself, a third (Ariq) remained a wild card claiming his own realm in the heart of Asia, and the fourth was Kublai, who was made viceroy of north China by his brother Mönkhe. The two of them set about the invasion of China, the first step being the taking of Yunnan, then independent. In 1259, during the campaign, Mönkhe died and Kublai declared himself head of the whole empire.

To govern, he made himself a Chinese emperor and declared a new dynasty, the Yuan, a move for which Mongolians have never really forgiven him. He moved his base from Xanadu to Beijing, rebuilding it around the palace and pleasure-grounds described in detail by Marco Polo. Later, this all became the site of today’s Beihai Park and the Forbidden City, which faces south, as do Mongolian tents.

Kublai took on board the vision of world rule inherited from his grandfather Genghis. He found backing in Buddhism, which was available because the Mongols had already taken over Tibet. Buddhist lore spoke of the chakravartin rajah (the ideal universal ruler) which for an emperor destined to take over the whole world was an appealing concept, as presented to Kublai by a young Buddhist priest known as phags-pa (Noble Guru) who became his top religious adviser. 

With Tengri and a ferocious Buddhist deity, Mahakala, on his side, Kublai invaded the Song empire of southern China. This immense 11-year campaign depended on a river fleet of thousands of boats, which carried the army down the River Han to the Yangtze, at the mouth of which was the Song capital Hangzhou. But the Han was blocked by a well-defended city, Xiangyang. The siege of Xiangyang was a local version of the Trojan War. After five years, Kublai’s top general advised him that he needed better and bigger artillery. Kublai knew where to get it — in the Islamic world, where crusaders and Muslims had been using vast catapults known as counterweight trebuchets to batter each other’s cities. Nothing could better show the advantages of empire. Off went a request across Asia thanks to the Mongol pony express, faster than any messaging service until the arrival of railways, and within weeks two Muslim engineers arrived with detailed plans. Their creation cracked Xiangyang like a nut, and opened the way to the Yangtze, to Hangzhou, and to victory. Remnants of the Song court, with a six-year-old heir, fled south, by ship. The end came in 1279, when a Mongol fleet overtook the Song south of Guanzhou. Tens of thousands perished, among them the senior Song adviser, who jumped into the sea with the little Prince Bing on his back.

It then became Kublai’s misfortune to discover that the idea of world rule was an impossible dream. He tried, launching invasions of Java, Vietnam, Burma and Japan. All failed. The two Japanese ventures (in 1274 and 1281) were catastrophes. For the second, Kublai commissioned a fleet of more than 4,000 ships, the greatest armada until the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. There were delays. It was August. The first typhoon of the season struck, and ground the fleet to splinters. The Japanese called it the Kamikaze, the Divine Wind. In World War II, their suicide pilots had the same name, because they intended to have the same effect on the Americans. By that time, Kublai was old, fat, and ailing. He died in 1294, and like his grandfather was taken to north Mongolia and buried in a secret cemetery that will probably remain secret for ever. 

The Empire’s sub-rulers bickered, went native, and fought their way to collapse. By the late 14th century, it was all over. Well, almost. Genghis survives in folklore as a monster to his victim-cultures, a hero to Mongolians, a revered founder of a dynasty to Chinese, even a saint (he’s worshipped by many, in a so-called mausoleum in the Ordos region of Inner Mongolia). Local khans in the Crimea were still claiming to rule in the name of Genghis when the Russians arrived in 1793.

The whole vast enterprise started by Genghis and brought to its fullest extent by Kublai is still very much alive. It was Kublai who, inspired by his grandfather’s vision, became the first “barbarian” to conquer all the various regions we now call China. Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan — he brought them all into the fold. No subsequent dynasty revoked his conquests. It is one of history’s ironies that today’s China mostly owes its borders not to a Chinese ruler, but to a Mongol who turned himself into a Chinese emperor.

Not that the shape of Kublai’s China is exactly the same as today’s, because Mongolia itself slipped away in the early 20th century, falling into the Soviet sphere. It was in fact the second country to become and remain Communist, an unlikely development for a nation of pastoral nomads with a single city, hardly any industry and no roads. It remained independent; or rather its northern section did, since its southern section, today’s Inner Mongolia, fell to China. The border between the two runs through the Gobi, and was until recently pure wilderness. Now the middle part is dominated by a huge copper mine, Oyu Tolgoi, that is about to transform Mongolia’s economy by generating some 30 per cent of its GDP. Almost all of the output will go to China, along a new railway. Chinese influence in Mongolia will increase, with potentially dramatic consequences, which Mongolians regard with apprehension, the Chinese with satisfaction. Both claim the spirit of Genghis. If the Chinese ever again dominate Mongolia, they will do so in the name of Genghis, the founder of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty; and if the Mongolians resist, they will do so in the name of Genghis, the founder of their nation.  

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