The Mongols

Mongol Invasion and Rule


Long before the European Industrial Revolution commenced in 18th century England, and while Europe remain mired in a rather primitive stage of development, China was experiencing its own demographic, urban, technological, commercial and industrial revolution during the Song dynasty from the 10th through 12th centuries. By any cultural measure, Song China was "the place to be." And the Venetian, Marco Polo, was amazed at what he saw. His own home, Venice counted about 50,000 people; by contrast, the city of Hangzhou was the world's largest in 1279 with an estimated population of 2.5 million! "By 1078 North China was producing annually more than 114,000 tons of pig iron (700 years later England would produce only half that amount)."* The printed book proliferated (China was the first society with printed books), paper money become widespread, and a rigorous examination system provided an ever growing, well-educated civil service of scholars. Then, along came the invaders from the northwest, the Mongols.

*(Fairbank & Goldman, 89)

The Mongol Empire was the largest land empire in world history. (see map below). While the Mongol conquerors certainly wreaked havoc and devastation over a large part of Asia and Russia, their cosmopolitan empire facilitated world trade, especially between Europe and China. From Marco Polo's writings, Europeans learned of China's vast wealth, superior technology, and well-ordered society. They began to covet Chinese products like silk and porcelain. Muslim merchant groups also helped to spur commercial growth in China. The roughly 100 year Mongol rule over China, led at first by Kublai Khan, was characterized by relative peace and stability. The Chinese despised the Mongols, and their invasion was indeed traumatic, but the Khans did not interfere with local Chinese operations. Indeed they used well-established Neo-Confucian traditions (bureaucracy, loyalty to authority, for example) to help maintain order. It must also be said that they probably contributed significantly to the spread of the bubonic plague throughout central and southwest Asia (through much of Arab-Islamic civilization), and of course into Europe.


An artistic representation of Marco Polo's meeting with Kublai Khan in 1275.


Marco Polo's journey in 1274 with his uncle and father from Venice to China followed much of the Silk Road trade routes. He returned to a Venice embroiled in conflict with Genoa 24 years later after long service to Kublai Khan. Venice lost the war, Polo was imprisoned, befriended his cellmate, Rustichello, and dictated his travels to him. Europeans learned of China by reading the book.


A map of the spread of the bubonic plague ("Black Death")