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 hsi-yu lu.”
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 military campaigns.
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.