The Mongol Empire & Dynasty in China Video

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  • 0:01 Song Weakness
  • 2:11 Mongol Expansion
  • 3:45 Yuan Dynasty
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Mongol Empire was the second-largest empire in history, and the largest ever seen up until its time. This lesson explains how the Mongols were able to conquer China, as well as innovations that allowed them to conquer other regions, before concluding with a discussion on the Yuan Dynasty.

Song Weakness

By the start of the 13th century, the Song Dynasty was no longer the great power it had once been. Instead, regional revolts threatened the integrity of the Chinese state, and for one of the first times in Chinese history, the Song Emperor, the holder of the Mandate of Heaven that acted as the moral high ground in the Chinese mindset, reached out to barbarians for help. Unfortunately for the Song, the barbarians whom the Song Emperor requested help from were fresh from conquering Central Asia and Korea, as well as their own contentious homeland, and these barbarians from the north, the Mongols, would threaten the Song within a year.

It would take nearly 40 years for the Mongols to conquer the Song Dynasty under the masterful rule of their leader, Genghis Khan (pronounced Chien-gis, not Gang-gus), which was impressive, as normally the Mongols could conquer lands in mere months. Granted, some of this was owed to the sheer size of China, but China itself was remarkably only a small part of the eventual Mongol domains. Instead, China presented the Mongols with few initial weaknesses, but over time, the Song made more and more mistakes, while the Mongols made fewer and fewer. Importantly, the Chinese Confucian system considerably undervalued the role of the military in society, meaning that some of China's greatest generals instead ended up as bureaucrats in order to achieve greater recognition, and those who did serve as generals were often ignored. Further, Chinese experts in siege technology, instead of being well kept like today's nuclear physicists, were instead free to offer their services to the Mongols, who would pay handsomely. Combined with considerable infighting among the Song, it is perhaps a better question to ask, how they managed to offer the Mongols any resistance at all.

Mongol Expansion

Of course, the Mongol army would need a few advantages for their conquests. During a time when most armies were still lined up for battle, the Mongols used highly mobile horse archers at the core of their armies. These riders were very adept in the saddle, able to turn completely around to fire their arrows while maintaining control of their mounts, allowing them to fire at enemy soldiers while riding away from them. Also, Mongol armies were kept small, often being outnumbered ten to one by their foes. Instead, the Mongols relied on high levels of morale, as well as considerable training, to maintain their advantages.

That said, superior horsemanship was not enough to build an empire that stretched from the Danube to the Pacific, which is precisely what the Mongols did. They also used superior forms of organization, taking experts from each newly conquered district and learning what they needed from them, whether it was Chinese siege techniques or Germanic blacksmithing. The Mongols were also incredibly resourceful, able to find innovative ways of cracking difficult foes. This added to their reputation of being ruthless killers, which was a legacy that the Mongols went out of their way to build with more and more stories of the terror that they wrought upon those who refused their rule.

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