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Mongol Rule in China

The perfect epitaph on Song, and comment on the rise of Yuan, was made by Marco Polo:

Yet the province of Manzi [Song, specifically the Song heartland in the Yangzi Valley] is very strong by nature, and all the cities are encompassed by sheets of water of great depth, and more than a crossbow-shot in width; so that the country never would have been lost, had the people but been soldiers. But that is just what they were not; so lost it was. (Polo 1927: 207)

The Mongols conquered the north in 1234 and all China in 1279, establishing the Yuan Dynasty. By this time Chinese and Altaic peoples had come to work together in north Chinese administrative bureaucracies, and the Mongols could simply fit in. They were advised by an heir of the Liao Dynasty, the noted statesman and thinker Yelu Chucai. At least one Mongol chief proposed, probably not seriously, to clear out the Chinese to create pasture land. However, China supposedly has selenium-deficient soils, which are not good for horse grazing (May 2012: 225), and there are other feed issues as well as climate and disease problems (P. Smith 1991), although horses are raised in many areas today.

The Mongols knew where their real wealth lay and were, at first, good administrators. On the other hand, the conquest of China took an incredible toll of lives, especially in the north. Chinas population fell from 100-120 million in the early 1200s to 60 million or a bit more (according to a Yuan census of 1290; May 2012: 223; May thinks this is a serious under-count, however). Most of the most losses were in the north. The fall of Yuan eliminated any gains under that dynasty, and Ming began with the same lowly figure, not regaining pre-Mongol population levels till the late sixteenth century (Mote 1994: 618-22). The Song Dynasty had experimented with a pacifist policy; it was founded by a general who took power in a coup and did everything possible to prevent a strong military from doing as much to him and his heirs (Twitchett and Smith 2009; see Chapter 6). Unfortunately, pacifism did not work at that time, so the Mongols did not take that path.

The Mongols had learned about autocratic rule in Central Asia, and Liao and Jin had pioneered pathways to centralization. So the Yuan introduced to China a more autocratic form of government than that of Song. However, the problems of rule—including weak emperors and war-torn successions— prevented Yuan from being very effective. Taxes remained low, around 3.4 percent of grain produced (Brook 2010: 107). This meant, among other things, that the government establishment could not be very large and could not even remotely approximate the penetrance and authority of modern governments. This mix of autocracy at the top and weakness on the ground was not a formula for success in governing, and Yuan was one of the shortest-lived Chinese dynasties. The following Ming Dynasty was to succeed better at rule.

It was at this time that the ethnically Chinese Muslim community began to take shape on a significant scale (Tan 2009: 8/ff.). The merchants who had begun to flock to China in the 600s now came in droves, settled down, and married into the Chinese population. Widespread Muslim communities resulted; however, the immigrants were of higher status than the Chinese, so attempts to maintain Islamic culture were the rule. These were the people who later became the Hui, but in Mongol times that term would have been understood as referring to the people of the Uighur kingdom, which had only recently been eclipsed by Mongol and other powers.

The Mongols inherited a China already westward-looking (Haw 2008; Jackson 2005; Ratchnevsky 1991; Rossabi 1988), thanks to earlier dynasties, all of which started in the northwest—generally in the Wei Valley area of Shaanxi—and conquered eastward. Sui and Tang were downright frontier societies in origin (Twitchett 1979); the Tang royal family was said to be part "barbarian," probably Turkic. The Liao and Jin Dynasties were in full contact with the West; Michal Biran (2005) has recently documented Liaos westward stance and Islamic contacts.

Chinese skill was taken for granted in this world, and very widely circulated was a Chinese claim that only the Chinese see with two eyes; those of Byzantium (or other skilled areas of the West) are one-eyed; the rest are blind (Allsen 2009: 152-53). This is possibly not the first or last time the Chinese were a bit less than modest about their skills, but it seems clear that the Western world did not disagree strongly with the assessment.

The Chinese had a type of low-rated cotton before Yuan, but the Mongol regime introduced better cotton and propagated it widely. It finally became a major fabric, at the expense of hemp and other bast fibers. Chinas enormous and fantastically productive cotton industry was beginning, but its full development had to await the introduction of New World cottons, a few centuries later on.

The Mongols succeeded in taming the Yellow River, taking only half a year (Endicott-West 1994: 576). This feat was never repeated in the entire history of imperial China; the Yellow River was not controlled again until the Communist era. The striking findings are that the Mongol Empire was very far from being a brief irruption of nomads who settled down to become just another Chinese dynasty. In addition to the Yellow River control mission, other water control projects flourished (Li Bozhong 2003).

Meanwhile, in China, the Yuan court issued Essentials of Agriculture and Sericulture (Nongsang Jiyao; Allsen 2009: 138). Food was easily spread. Gastronomy was well established at both ends of the Mongol world, and the Mongols soon picked it up. (If ones cuisine is limited to boiled meat, noodles, and fermented mares milk, ones resistance to borrowing Chinese and Persian gastronomy is probably low.) In addition to the work by Paul Buell, Charles Perry, and myself (Buell et al. 2000; Perry 2005; Rodinson et al. 2001), Allsen notes that sugar technology spread to China and elsewhere in Asia, and saffron became a food spice in China. Laufer (1919) and later Franke, Buell, and others discovered many food-related Persian loanwords in Chinese (see Franke and Twitchett 1994; Buell et al. 2010). Buell dissected these and showed that many had been borrowed via Turkic languages, for the Chinese words represent transliterations of various Turkic dialectic pronunciations of the Persian words (Buell et al. 2000). However, away from the Mongol court and the "barbarian'-influenced north, Chinese food remained totally conservative. The great cookbooks of the period do not show any Mongol influence at all (E. Anderson et al. 2005; Sabban 1997,1999).

In medicine, the level of exchange is shown by the presence of a Lombard doctor at the Yuan court (Allsen 2001: 142) and of Greek medicine in Tibet. Medical schools proliferated under Yuan and were heavily influenced by Western knowledge (Shinno 2007). A new medicine arose from the fusion of the dramatic advances made in the Song Dynasty (Unschuld 1985,1986) and the new Western knowledge.

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