Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons
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Most Westerners are familiar with the story of Marco Polo, the young, Venetian explorer who went on a grand adventure to China in the late 13th century. There he met the Great Khan, Kublai, and entered his service. During his years under Kublai's patronage, Polo introduced the Great Khan to European civilization, and the Great Khan, in return, introduced Polo to Chinese civilization.
Like a shrewd merchant, Marco Polo got the best out of that bargain. Chinese civilization had long since surpassed Europeans in technology and refinement. Marco Polo returned to Venice 24 years later with a vast fortune as well as maps of lands that hadn't seen a European in centuries and tales of technologies that few Europeans had ever imagined, like coal and paper money.
Marco Polo's epic journey to the Far East would forever change the course of European history. His maps would help later Europeans follow the Silk Road, a path not tread by Westerners since the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The impact of Chinese technologies on Europe cannot be overstated. Unlike Europe, China's technological and cultural progress had not been disrupted by centuries of dark ages. China would provide still more technologies to Europe, including the compass, the noodle, the printing press, and of course, gunpowder.
Each of these technologies would be instrumental in reshaping Europe - with perhaps the exception of the noodle. Coal would power the Industrial Revolution, while paper money would revolutionize economics. The compass would make Columbus's transatlantic expedition possible. The printing press was instrumental in the propagation of ideas from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution. Gunpowder would change warfare forever, leading to the steady decline of feudalism and the formation of nation states.
Traditionally, Western historians have tended to describe the voyage of Chinese technologies to Europe as a purely European and Chinese affair. Like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, European adventurers found their way to China and brought Chinese technology home with them. Yet this account overlooks a very important fact. None of these world-changing Chinese technologies would ever have made it to Europe were it not for the Mongols.
The Mongols reopened the Silk Road, connecting Europe to China for the first time since the collapse of the Roman Empire. More importantly, the Mongols conquered China before Marco Polo and his ilk ever got there. Kublai, the Great Khan of China, who introduced Marco Polo to Chinese culture, was not Chinese at all but rather a Mongolian conqueror. Thus, it is misleading to think that European adventurers took Chinese technology from China. It is much more accurate to say that the Mongols gave Chinese technology to Europeans.
When Westerners hear 'Mongols,' we tend to think of uncivilized barbarians - horse peoples from the steppes of Central Asia whose raids across the Eurasian continent were marked by their speed and brutality.
Much of this picture is true. The Mongols were horse peoples, followers of a pastoralist lifestyle separated from the agrarian civilizations that had developed in much of the world. The Mongols were horse peoples, followers of a pastoral lifestyle that had persisted in the Eurasian Steppe for thousands of years. Like all horse peoples, from the Scythians to the Huns, the Mongols were uncivilized. That means that they did not live in cities but rather led a nomadic lifestyle, following their flocks. And, like their predecessors, these Mongols conducted quick and brutal raids on civilized cultures, stealing their livestock, their treasures, and even their people.
Yet the Mongols were by no means barbarians. In the 13th century, the Mongols ruled over the largest empire the world had ever seen, ruling over a dizzying array of civilizations from the South China Sea all the way up to the Baltic. For nearly two centuries, the Mongol Empire was the most technologically advanced, religiously tolerant, culturally diverse society on Earth.
This all started with Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. Genghis realized that there was a way to steal from civilized people without all the work of seasonal raiding. You raid them just once, quickly and brutally: you massacre their people and burn their cities to the ground - you know, really scare the heck out of them. Then you tell them to pay you, or you'll do it again. And as long as they keep paying you, they're under your protection, in much the same way as someone pays the Mafia for protection. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his successors, the Mongols expanded this extortion racket, demanding tribute from cities across Asia and Eastern Europe.
Yet the Mongols did more than demand tribute. Genghis and his successors recognized the value of civilization beyond a mere storehouse of treasure to be raided. The Khans realized that there were some treasures, like knowledge, science, and art, that could not be easily taken in a raid nor demanded in tribute. So they proactively absorbed the cultures they raided by taking craftsmen, priests, mathematicians, doctors, poets, and anyone who could write and putting them into the service of the Mongolian Empire. Even as the Mongols absorbed the cultures they conquered, they were, in turn, absorbed by those cultures.
A prime example of this is Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, who gave up the Mongol raiding life to rule China as a Chinese emperor just in time to meet Marco Polo in the late 13th century. When Kublai sent a letter to the Pope, the Great Khan did not demand gold or jewels from the leader of Christendom - he asked for 100 Christians acquainted with the Seven Arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy).
In their pursuit of empire and its fruits, the Mongols showed a level of religious tolerance and secularism that was remarkable for its age. Their own native religion was a sort of animism and was considered a strictly personal affair. This established a system of religious tolerance that would later embrace Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.
The Mongols did not care where an idea came from, so long as it was useful. The same went for people. A person's standing in the Mongol Empire depended on their abilities, not their race or lineage. The Mongols knew that the best people to administer China were Chinese bureaucrats - just as they knew that a peasant craftsman was at least as useful as his lord, if not more so.
Yet, lest we idealize the Mongols, we must remember that this enlightened civilization was nevertheless one of the most brutal, horrifying forces in the world. Their empire was not held together by common belief or common cause but by people's terror of what the Mongols would do to them if they ever rebelled. This is the face that the Mongols wear in most accounts of Western Civilization.
At most, we hear about how Genghis's grandson, Batu Khan, conquered Russia in 1237. We hear the terrifying tales of how his Golden Horde controlled Russia for two centuries with a campaign of savagery and treachery.
The most positive portrayal we normally hear of the Mongols is in reference to the Pax Mongolica, or 'Mongol Peace.' Such accounts focus on how the vast Mongol Empire enabled trade between Europeans and Chinese along the Silk Road for the first time in almost a thousand years.
Though many historians have rightly emphasized the importance of the Pax Mongolica, this account reduces the role of the Mongols to mere peacekeepers, passively manning the roads and allowing the 'real' civilizations to talk to each other. But in truth, Europe did not have to wait for European explorers to bring Chinese technology back to Europe; the Mongols did that for them. The Mongol Empire did not just facilitate the trade of technology; they proactively absorbed and spread technology. In their two centuries of dominance, the Mongols collected the best that Asia had to offer and delivered it right to Europe's doorstep.
Columbus got his compass just in time to discover the New World. The bankers of Italy and the Netherlands were introduced to paper money and soon had kings and popes in their debt. The armies of Europe got a dangerous new weapon in gunpowder, forever changing the face of European warfare and politics. Gutenberg got his printing press, allowing Europeans to share information at a much greater rate and scale, ushering in new eras of science and technology. And pasta lovers, like myself, got our favorite food in the whole world: noodles.
Yet this was not a total win for Europe. The same trade routes that brought these new goods and technologies also brought disease. The Black Death was introduced to Europe from China by the Mongols. This disease would wipe out nearly half of Europe's population. It is ironic that even though the Mongols never invaded Western Europe, they still managed to bring death and destruction on an unprecedented scale.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons