Mongolians and Their Contributions to Western Civilization

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  • 0:05 Marco Polo
  • 1:17 The Impact of Chinese…
  • 3:18 The Mongol Empire
  • 4:45 The Great Khans
  • 7:38 Mongol Brutality
  • 8:19 Pax Mongolica
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the contributions of the Mongols to Western civilization. We begin by examining the tale of Marco Polo. Next, we look at some common misconceptions about the Mongols. Finally, we enumerate the many technologies brought to Europe by this group.

Marco Polo

Europe was impacted by Chinese technologies, such as coal and paper money
Asian Technology

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

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.

The Mongol Empire was the largest the world had ever seen, spanning from South China to the Baltic
Mongolian Empire

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.

The Mongol Empire

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.

The Great Khans

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.

The Mongols were religiously tolerant
Religious Tolerance

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.

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