A Brief Guide To Early Chinese History: The Mongol Conquest Of China And Its Consequences

October 17, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The Mongol Conquests

In 1210, with Genghis Khan at their head, the Mongol armies attacked the northern state of the Chinese Kin empire. With military genius but inhuman ferocity, the Mongols destroyed almost the entire population of large areas of China.

The development of the genocidal military technology of the Mongols arose from their honed hunting skills and the co-ordination of large troop movements to achieve, originally hunting, but ultimately military, objectives. After the formation of the union of the tribes, the Mongols hunted by cordoning off “hunting parks” or game areas of seven to ten thousand square miles, areas limited on one or two sides by rivers or mountains and limited on the other side or sides by the galloping lines of Mongol troops. These troops could and did terrify the wild animals by riding noisily along the open grasslands of their continually closing cordon, so that all the game was systematically concentrated into a pre-planned killing ground of about six to ten square miles, where all animals could be butchered after the Great Khan arrived. Only fish, birds, rodents and small mammals seemed to have escaped that process. This procedure honed key transferable hunting and military skills – such as the consideration of the most effective military strategy to dominate a large area, the rapid and centrally coordinated movement of horsemen on several fronts, and the gauntlet for the mass murder of game. Marco Polo described, with no little astonishment, this hunting park activity in detail after he visited the court of Kublai Khan. Mongol activity wiped out virtually all large game in vast areas of central Asia, and created enormous grasslands which were free from herbivores, as some have remained to the present day.

Returning in 1224, having been denied military help with his western campaign by the state of Hsia, Genghis Khan’s army fell upon and totally destroyed the state of Hsia. As one history of the world comments, the Mongols:

“…blew up like a hurricane to terrify half a dozen civilisations, slaughtered and destroyed on a scale the 20th century alone has emulated, and then disappeared almost as suddenly as they came.”
J. M. Roberts, “A History of the World,” Hutchinson, London, 1976, p299.

which is a very European viewpoint – the Mongols ruled China for more than a century after its first conquest, although the Yuan dynasty established by Kublai Khan ruled from 1271 to 1368. The death of Genghis Khan on 18 August 1227 saved Europe from the fate that had befallen China, because the Mongol armies operating in Europe all withdrew to Karakorum for a gathering of the tribes to decide who would be the next Khan. Genghis died in the campaign to put down the rebellion of the Hsia kingdom. As one source comments

“On his deathbed, he ordered that Xi Xia [Hsia] be wiped from the face of the earth. Obedient as always, Khan’s successors leveled whole cities and towns, killing or enslaving all their inhabitants.” See


And as Fitzgerald further comments:
“According to the Chinese history not more than one hundredth part of the population survived, the countryside was covered with human bones, the cities left desolate. The north-west has never recovered from this disaster. Many of the border cities were never reoccupied, and have been invaded by the drifting sands of the [Taklimakan] desert. The irrigation works fell into decay for lack of attention, and the country reverted to steppe.”
C.P Fitzgerald, “China – A Short Cultural History”, Century Hutchinson, Melbourne, p 433.

This was, of course, what the Mongols wanted – more “hunting parks”, and more grassland for their horses. The destruction of the population in North West China altered the regional balance of Chinese civilisation which became almost entirely southern-dominated when it had previously been northern-led.

The Mongols were by far the most pitiless mass murderers in history: they had a rule that if, when the Mongols were laying siege to a city, one child threw one stone at one invading Mongol soldier, then everyone and everything in the city should be killed. They did not always do this, but they usually did. The Mongol programme for area-clearing and city massacre was very similar to their animal clearing activities in the steppe – destroy all the lightly-defended small towns and farming communities, killing all the inhabitants; construct walls around, invest and conquer cities; then drive all of the people out of the city into giant concentration camps (first invented by the Mongols) one for men, one for women and children; thoroughly loot the city, concentrating on the movable assets which could be carried away on horseback; kill all the men, kill all the children, rape and kill all the women. The whole population of captured cities were often marched through one city gate, all other exits having been closed, and the people were often corralled, as animals sometimes still are in slaughter-houses, through a baffle, so that they could not see what was happening ahead of them; each person was systematically beheaded in an almost industrial process, the heads being stacked in neat pyramids, the tally of murders per man day being counted, until the massacre was complete. After the capture or surrender of a city, each soldier of whatever rank had to butcher an equal number of captives – the Mongols only had a democracy in butchery. The quota of the required number of beheadings per soldier was sometimes several hundred. The Mongols probably killed a greater proportion of the population of the world than any other people before or since. In the Middle East, the Mongols created pyramids of human heads to avoid any possible recovery of the wounded or any escape by anyone hiding among the dead. This was what they also did to the Hsia population.

In my view the Mongols were the pre-industrial equivalent of atomic war. They destroyed previously flourishing cities and regions. They halved the 12th century population of China by killing nearly everyone in the cradle of Chinese civilisation, in the “land within the passes” of Northern and North West China. The almost complete massacre of the Hsia population altered the balance of Chinese civilisation from northern-dominated to Southern-led. As Professor C P Fitzgerald has commented:

Fitzgerald continues:

“A region which in T’ang times had been wealthy and cultured, as the Buddhist Scriptures and cave monasteries prove, became a semi-desert, the poorest and most backward part of the Chinese Empire.”

C.P Fitzgerald, “China – A Short Cultural History”, Century Hutchinson, Melbourne, p 433.

5 The Stillborn Chinese Industrial Revolution in the 13th Century

Prior to this depopulation, North West China had been a great centre of innovation, and may have been the area from which many of the fundamental cultural innovations of paper, gunpowder, and small, toy, steam engines may have originated (although the exploitation of some of these developments was carried forward in southern China.) The intriguing possibility exists that the outbreak of the industrial revolution was stopped dead in China in the early thirteenth century due to the genocidal Mongols. The people who created the wealth of the region had been completely massacred. Again, Fitzgerald comments:

“It has been suggested that the advancing economy of the Southern Sung, its superb handicraftmanship, the development of overseas commerce and the growth of industries such as silk and porcelain, which worked in large part for export and increasingly in concentrated centres of production, had reached a point where it would be natural to have been succeeded by an industrial revolution and the development of a machine technology.[…] If this could have happened, it was frustrated by events in the north. The Mongols, under the redoubtable Chingiz Khan, had overthrown the Kin dynasty, and they too soon turned south to attack the Sung.”
Professor C.P. Fitzgerald, “The History of China to 1840”, essay contained in “China’s Three Thousand Years,” Times Newspapers Ltd, 1973.

The Mongols probably halved the population of China. Even when the population of cities was spared, the previous population levels could often not be maintained because the Mongols had, on the way to the cities, killed nearly all the farmers and farm workers who had fed the cities. Conquered cities often rebelled after submission because of that. Many historians find it difficult to believe that so many people could have been killed by the Mongols, because where cities were occasionally spared only the countryside dwellers had been directly killed by Mongol butchery. But the Mongols destroyed the carrying capacity of the farms because they wanted grasslands for their horses and hunting parks for wild animals, so countryside murders and city massacre was the general rule until Yelu Ch’u-ts’ai, convinced Kublai Khan that it was better to spare the population of Kaifeng, turning them into a source of riches and revenue rather than corpses, to enrich Karakorum.

The Mongols were only superior to the Chinese in in military technology – much of which had been adopted from Chinese contact – firearms, cannon, iron bombs, etc. The only aspect of development in which the Mongols were interested was military technology, which they were constantly looking to improve. The sparing of Kaifeng gave the Mongols the additional Chinese military capabilities (the cannon, fire bombs and gunpowder based weaponry) without which they would not have been able to defeat the Southern Sung. The sparing of Kaifeng was therefore a mixed blessing, sparing the city’s population, but paving the way to the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty in China.

Professor C P Fitzgerald concluded that the Mongol invasion and rule was all pain and no gain to Chinese civilisation, and it is difficult not to agree with that conclusion.

© George Tait Edwards 2013


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This post was written by George Tait Edwards

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