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14.1 Song China and the Steppe Peoples

The Song dynasty revived and strengthened Confucian civilization in the areas it ruled. Technology improved agricultural yields and laid the groundwork for a type of industrial revolution to occur long before the one that took place in the Western world. The emphasis on Confucius’s pacifist vision led to a neglect of the military, however, at a time when China’s neighbors were becoming more organized and powerful. The Khitan, Xia, and Jurchen all adopted elements of Chinese civilization but did not lose their appetite for raiding and war. Once the Jurchen Jin dynasty displaced the Liao, it realized the weaknesses of the Song and reduced it to an even smaller slice of China’s traditional territory.

Meanwhile, in Mongolia, Temujin used military innovations to gain control of increasing numbers of commoners at the eastern end of the Eurasian Steppe, building a force loyal and powerful enough to bring about his vision of a better life for his people. By 1204, Temujin was the unchallenged ruler of the People of the Felt Walls.

14.2 Chinggis Khan and the Early Mongol Empire

Chinggis Khan ruled the Mongol Empire for twenty-one years. In that time, he established a law code, the yassa, that he hoped would allow his seminomadic people to live in harmony. He saw the people living in settled areas, such as the Xi Xia, Jin, and Khwarazmians, as a source of wealth and tribute. The empire changed enormously during Chinggis Khan’s reign, becoming more inwardly peaceful but also much more materialistic in its tastes. The military changed as well, becoming a sophisticated war machine capable of surprise attacks and deadly sieges.

Chinggis Khan’s son Ogedei steered the empire toward his father’s vision of a united people, overseeing a peaceful Eurasia-wide exchange of goods and collection of taxes, and he expanded the empire to make it happen. Equally important, Ogedei undertook the development of the bureaucracy and infrastructure necessary to support trade on a large scale. Due to Ogedei’s lack of foresight in planning for succession, however, the reign of Chinggis Khan’s grandson Mongke marked the end of a united Mongol Empire. When Mongke’s brother Kublai succeeded him as great khan, the empire was beginning to divide into those who preferred the old nomadic ways and those who had adopted a settled lifestyle of wealth and trade.

14.3 The Mongol Empire Fragments

While Kublai’s Yuan dynasty reunited China and gave it the same ruler as the Mongol homeland and much of central Asia, it revived neither the prosperity of China nor the robustness of the steppe people. Trade continued to flow, and the effects of earlier economic growth were still apparent, but less wealth was subsequently produced. This meant less went to the steppe, and those producing wealth saw increasingly fewer returns on their labor. The seemingly invincible armies of the Mongol Empire had proven unable to conquer Southeast Asia and were even less skilled at long-distance sea invasions. Perhaps most contrary to Chinggis Khan’s desired legacy, his descendants succumbed to a lust for power and were quick to abandon the strength of a unified Mongol people under one leader for their own bid to be that leader for a few years.

14.4 Christianity and Islam outside Central Asia

The forces of centralization and conformity in Western Christendom scored important victories, crushing heretical movements and formalizing institutions such as the Inquisition to keep them down. On the other hand, crusaders and kings alike often ignored the papal will with virtual impunity. Monarchs in France and the Two Sicilies laid the groundwork for strong royal bureaucracies to keep the nobility in check. In other areas, nobles and merchants in places like England and Iberia created institutional arrangements to protect their rights and resources from royal abuse.

The Muslim-held portions of the Mediterranean saw frequent struggles over who would govern as institutions to ensure orderly succession failed to develop. Whoever had the military strength to impose law and order did so until they were displaced. Perhaps nothing demonstrated this pattern more than the rise of the Mamluk dynasty, founded by the mercenaries long used in struggles by different descendants of Salah al-Din. In North Africa, this failure of succession and changing military realities led to a collapse of centralized power and a yielding of land in Iberia to growing Christian states. In both areas, however, Sunni Islam emerged stronger than it had been at the beginning of the thirteenth century, although the strength of Muslim governance in the Iberian Peninsula was on a precipitous decline from which it would not recover.

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