|Off the horse
Mongols: They were not merely blood-thirsty savages
By Frank Wong
November 6, 2002
When people conjure up images of Mongols (Mogul) and their role in human history,
it is always less than a rosy picture. But, few know that they were no better and
no worse compared to many of our many world conquerors and leaders. Even few know
that many of the Mongol khans were patrons of the art, ruled cunningly and with wisdom.
The Mongols were not merely blood-thirsty savages as we know them to be. There is
a still a saying among the Chinese that we inherited from the Mongols and Turkic
people in farther Asia: "You can conquer an empire on horseback, but you cannot
rule from it."
While numerous foreigners (ie. Marco Polo) came to China in the Mongol era, there
was also a movement in the opposite direction. This has obviously attracted less
interest in the West.
Some of those who went from North China to the Middle East or even to Europe are
known to us. Such is the case with the Taoist monk Chang-chun (lay name, Chiu Chu-chi-1148
to 1227), pratriach of the Chuan-chen sect. Already in favour with the Jurchen Chin
Emperor, Chih-tsung, who had called him to Beijing, he was later summoned by Genghis
Khan to Afghanistan in 1219.
Starting from Shantung, whither he had retired, Chang-chun set off in 1220 with 18
of his disciples, crossed Outer Mongolia and the Altai, passed through Samarkand
where he found Chinese laborers and migratory workers who moved there from Xinjiang
during the Karakhitai (remnants of the Liao Khitans in Xinjiang), and went around
the south of the Hindu Kush and arrived in 1222 at Genghis Khan's encampment in the
Kabul area. Returning to Beijing in 1224, after leaving Genghis Khan near Tashkent
in 1223, Chang-chun left an account of this journey, the "Chang-chun chen-jen
Another Chinese, called Chang Te, was sent on a mission to Iran in 1259 by the Khan
Mongke. He set out from Karakorum, travelled via the north of the Tianshan mountains,
Samarkand and Tabriz in Iran. He visited Hulagu Khan's camp and returned in 1263.
The account of his journey, entitled "Record of a Mission to the West (Hsi-shih-chi)
was written down by one Liu Yu.
About 1275, the Chinese Nestorian monk Rabban Bar Sauma (?-1294), born in Beijing,
and his disciple Mark decided to set out for the Holy Land. He was appointed "Patriarch"
by the Hulagu Khan of all Christians in his Ilkhan domain. They paid a visit to the
Nestorian pope in the main city of northwestern Iran, to the south of Tabriz. From
there, Sauma was sent on a mission to Rome and the kings of France and England by
the Khan Argun.
After visiting Constantinople and Rome in 1287-88, he saw the king of England in
Gascony and Philip the Fair in Paris. He was to leave a description of the Abbey
of Saint-Denis and of the Sainte-Chapelle. It was his visit to Rome which was to
cause Pope Clement III to send Giovanni di Monte Corvino to Beijing.
But, besides these famous personages, a host of many unknown Chinese people travelled
as far as Iran and Russia and settled down far from their native country. When travelling
from Beijing to Kabul in 1221-22, the monk Chang-chun had noted the presence of Chinese
craftsmen in Outer Mongolia, Xinjiang (Uygurstan) and in the Samarkand area. He had
also learned that Chinese weavers had settled in the upper Yenisei valley.
It is documented that in the 14th century AD, there were Chinese living quarters
in Tabriz, Iran and even in Moscow and Novgorod, Russia. They along with Muslims,
dominated the trade and tax business in Russia. Even now, in Russia, the Chinese
abacus calculator is much in use.
The right hand minister of the Hulagu Khan was a Chinese by the name of Bolad Ching
Sang. He helped introduce paper currency (chao) to Iran during the Ilkhan as a more
feasible mean of collecting tax compared to the native metal currency. Chap (from
the Chinese "chao") is still a word used by Iranian people today for "printing".
A Chinese general, Kuo Kan was in command of the Khan Hulagu's armies at the siege
of Iran, Damascus and Baghdad in 1258. His Chinese siege tactics and artillery proved
the deciding factor in the breaking of the Ismaili and Hashashin (Assassin) walled
castles in Iran. It was not uncommon to see Mongol and Turkish cavalry/horsemen fighting
alongside Chinese footsoldiery and siege technicians in many of the Hulagu Khan's
Over one thousand Chinese foot soldiers and hydraulic engineers were employed on
the irrigation of the Tigris and Euphrates basins. The Mongol policy was to transfer
the best qualified technicians from one end of the Eurasian continent to the other.
Thus, the Mongol domination ensured the diffusion of certain Chinese techniques in
the empires of the Ilkhan in Iran and the Golden Horde in Russia. Chinese influence
is perceptible in Persian miniatures, and also in Iranian ceramics, and architecture
of the Mongol epoch. Chinese influences in Iranian and Turkish art is apparent even
to this day. It can be dated to Ilkhan era.
Some people have even thought that they could see traces of Chinese influence in
Italian painting of the 14th cent., and more particularly in Lorenzetti's "Massacre
of the Franciscans at Ceuta" (c. 1340). But, it is above all in connection with
the 2 great inventions of modern times in Europe that the question of stimuli and
contributions from China arises.
The introduction in the 14th cent. in both the Ilkhan and Golden Horde Mongol empires
of Iran and Russia of Chinese influences: playing cards, printed fabrics, and paper
money was obviously connected with the appearance of wood engraving in Europe and
consequently of printing with movable type. Paper money was printed at Tabriz, a
great cosmopolitan centre in Iran during the Mongol era where Greek, Italian, Armenian,
Jewish, Arab, Uygurs, Mongols and Chinese all met and exchanged ideas.
The Iranian historian, Rashid al-Din (c. 1247-1318),
who had made Chinese medicine known in his "Treasure of the Ilkhan on the Sciences
of Cathay" (1313), is the first to mention the Chinese invention of wood engraving.
Wood engraving, known in Europe 30 or 40 years before the knowledge of printing,
was immensely successful there. Holy pictures, playing cards, and little books with
text and illustrations were printed. As for the idea of using movable type, it is
to be supposed to have spread into Europe also during this time via Russia or Iran.
As for the other great invention of modern times, the firearm, we know that Mongols
had employed Chinese siege engineers with firearm weaponry during the campaigns in
Iran, Caucasus and Arabia. In Europe, they were used for the first time at the Battle
of Sajo in Hungary in 1241.
It was also at this time, that the Hulagu Khan invited Chinese, Uygur and Tibetan
Buddhist monks to his domain. Being rabidly anti-Muslim, the Hulagu Khan had allowed
these Chinese and Central Asian guests to build numerous Buddhist monasteries and
temples in Tabriz and other parts of northern Iran.
Later, when Guyuk Khan converted to Islam, they were all buried under the sand and
the Chinese/Central Asia monks were either obliged to convert to Islam or return
to the Yuan Mogul domains in China from whence they had came.
Hulagu Khan had a grand vision and was not simply epileptic
murderer or a barbarian nomadic conqueror as depicted in the conventional wisdom
of world history. As a boy, he was not only well trained in horsemanship, wrestling
and archery, but he also had Chinese tutors at his side teaching him poetry and the
stroke of the brush. Like his brother, Kublai Khan, they came to realize that coexistence
with the civilization of their conquered subjects is necessary in order to rule with
legitimacy. Kublai had done it well in China.
Hulagu Khan's main achievement lie in the realm of being able to bridge East and
West with an opportunity and resources few had. However, his vestiges of Chinese
culture introduced into Iran and Middle East was never able to reconcile with a completely
different frame of reference of his subjects. It turned the tide when his grandsons
decided to fully embrace Islam and make the Ilkhan empire into a Muslim one.
This is a past few know about and a pity if we don't. China and Iran intersected
many times in our long history. Ilkhan was one of those time eras we got closer.