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The End of the Mongol Information Superhighway

The Mongol Empire fell apart slowly but surely. The Golden Horde converted to Islam for complex reasons; the process was not simple or merely political (Deweese 1994). Settling in Russia, they gradually mixed with Russians and Turkic peoples. The last of them became "Tatars," whatever that word may mean, and were largely exterminated by Stalin (the Crimean Tatars were especially affected by outright genocide; see E. Anderson and B. Anderson 2012; Rummel 1998).

Near Eastern medicine transformed Europe and had much to do with the making of modern science. The knowledge transfer seen in the HHYF is dwarfed by the sheer volume of the transfer from the Near East to Europe in the medieval period. On the other hand, the latter transfer took place slowly and in small packets from the 700s to the 1600s. There was a burst of activity in the 1200s, when the total mass of translations of Arabic works into Latin reached enormous proportions. Gerald of Cremona, the most diligent scholar, translated (or at least oversaw the translation of) dozens of works. Medieval Europe began the process that reached fruition in the "scientific revolution" (Gaukroger 2006); many now think there was no revolution, only a slow process.

Europe was rising fast, and its expansion after 1400 diminished and eventually replaced the dominance of Asia in world politics. European powers rapidly seized control of the sea lanes at just the point when marine transportation was becoming more efficient and cheaper than caravans. The Silk Road was doomed. With European dominance of the seas, and the resulting vast wealth flows to the relevant powers, Europe took the lead from Asian medicine in the sixteenth century.

Even before that, medicine was past its acme in the Near East. A recent concise summary attributes this to "military invasions [including the Ilkhans], massacres and infrastructure destruction; a long period of drought beginning around 1250 AD [the Medieval Warm Period]; and a series of plague epidemics between 1347 and 1515" (Silverstein 2007). Nevertheless, medicine continued to exist, and some real advances were made. The idea of unrelieved decline is simply not the case (cf. Dallal 2010; Stearns 2011), but the problems were overwhelming. The Near Eastern doctors had long known of contagion and did what they could to fight bubonic plague and other epidemics in spite of much controversy, but they had nothing that could stop them.

The Yuan Dynasty fell and the Mongols were expelled in 1368, following the amazing popular rebellion led by Zhu Yuanzhang—the only case in all of Chinese history when a popular movement led by a plebeian actually brought down a dynasty and established a new one (see, e.g., Mote 1999). The Mongols fled back to the steppes, where they kept harassing Ming. They even once succeeded in sacking Beijing. They preserved their state for centuries—solid disproof of the old nonsense about China absorbing her conquerors.

The Ilkhan dynasty in the Near East, checked by the Mamluks, rapidly unraveled and fell into the usual fratricidal conflicts of the declining Mongol empires. Then Tamerlane appeared from Central Asia (Marozzi 2004). His conquests devastated all of the Near and Middle East, but he created little that lasted. The region was so devastated that it could only fall into increasingly destructive wars. The cycle of savagery goes on today, preventing Central Asia from rising again.

In fact, the Song Dynasty, conquered and destroyed by the Mongols, was in many ways a golden age of innovative thinking that China was never to repeat. The Ming lost Yuans fascination with the West (P. Smith and von Glahn 2003) and turned its attention eastward. Allsen (2001) notes that the Ming compilation of the history of Yuan devotes more attention to the Ryukyu Islands than to the Mongols in Russia! Surely the Yuan would not have had such a priority. This indicates a shift in trade from land-based across Central Asia to sea-based toward Japan and Southeast Asia.

The Ming Dynasty, which arose as an anti-Mongol movement, was relatively xenophobic. Chinese traditions triumphed, but Ming copied the Mongols in one major way: they maintained and greatly strengthened the Mongol centralized autocratic government. China became authoritarian in a way that it had not been before. I follow the widespread (but still controversial) view that this is what eventually slowed Chinese science and enterprise (see Mote 1999 and Pomeranz 2000). China fell behind the West from the middle Ming onward, though it remained somewhere in the competition until the comparably repressive Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Most scholars still seem unaware of the extent to which East and West fused under the Mongols (Buell, Anderson, and Perry 2010; May 2007). Perhaps more to the point, they still have, somewhere in mind, racist stereotypes of Chinese science. As recently as 1944, even so widely tolerant a scholar as A. L. Kroeber—the antithesis of a racist—could write that Chinese "Observation, except for practical utility, inclined to be casual and summary.... The bent of Chinese civilization ... was toward an interest in human behavior and relations, rather than toward the physical world.... Nature was something to be taken for granted, dealt with, or enjoyed aesthetically, but hardly to be curious about" (Kroeber 1944:183). Joseph Needham changed all this. We often forget, now, just how revolutionary Needhams findings were. Quotations like the one from Kroeber remind us that even the least intolerant Westerners still believed stereotypes. Even after Needham, scholars often dismissed Chinese science as nothing but mystical nonsense (e.g., Wolpert 1993).

This attitude has led to the assumption that Ming simply kept the tradition going. In fact, Ming slowed an interaction that should, by all rights, have kept China fully participant in the modernization of science after 1500. If the impetus of the previous 2,000 years had been maintained, China would have been as much a part of the developing European world as Germany, or at least Sweden or Hungary. Instead, China turned inward or eastward. It did not stand still—science continued to flourish, observation went on—but by the end of Ming, China had begun to fall behind the Europeans.

 
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