Episode 30: Pax Mongolica and Cultural Exchange
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
Following Kublai Khan’s conquest of China, the Mongols imposed a Pax Mongolica* across the steppes, which ended centuries-long warring between nomad tribes. The resulting peace led to a revival of the Silk Road and renewed prosperity of both states and nomads involved in the Silk Road trade. It also resulted in unprecedented cultural exchange. Exchanges between Persia and China about geography and map-making enabled both kingdoms to produce maps that were far better than those Columbus used to explore the New World. The Persians also shared their knowledge of medicine (from Hindu sources) with China, as well as citrus and grape cultivation. While the Chinese shared their knowledge of tea, black pepper and cinnamon with the Muslim world.
Under Kublai Khan, the Mongols built great cities and set up lavish courts in many of the regions they conquered. He used captive Muslims and Christians to administer cities in northern China and captive Chinese to administer the Ilkhanate Empire (comprising modern-day Iran and parts of Azerbaijan and Turkey).
Most of the Golden Horde (northwestern sector of Mongol Empire – see Mongol Invasion of China) converted to Islam in the 13th century. Although the Ilkhanate abandoned Sunni Islam for Shi’a Sufism, Buddhism was also an important religion there until the empire collapsed in 1335.
Kublai Khan’s conversion to Buddhism (although he was equally tolerant of Daoism and Islam) resulted in its spread across the eastern steppes. The Uighurs, however, abandoned Buddhism for Islam. Most of Transoxiana also became Muslim.
Thanks to improvements in Silk Road security, it now became possible for European Christians to send envoys to Muslim courts for the first time, while Chinese porcelain became widely traded across the Muslim world. There was a simultaneous expansion in sea routes connecting Europe.
China shared their knowledge of block printing (invented under the Song Dynasty) with the Ilkhans, who used it to produce paper money. Under Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty, gunpowder technology (discovered under the Han Dynasty) also spread across the steppes and into Europe.
This would be the first major eastern technology to take hold in Europe, leading the English to invent the cannon in the mid-14th century and hand held small arms in the 17th century. It was thanks to these technologies that they conquered the world over the next two centuries.
*Russian historians refer to the Pax Mongolica as the Mongol Yoke, owing to the massive slaughter of civilians during their conquest of the Russian principalities. 500,000 total were either killed or died of exposure and starvation (after the Mongols destroyed their homes and crops).
**Harl briefly discusses the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who traveled to China via the Silk Road in 1271 and served 23 years in Kublai Khan’s court. Because there are no references to the explorer in Chinese sources, Harl believes he likely served as a minor civil servant and exaggerated his role in his writings. His book The Travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus’s voyage to the new world.
The film can be viewed with a library card on Kanopy.