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The Mongol Ascendancy refers to a time in Chinese history when the Mongols were able to successfully conquer and hold most of Asia, and extended their Empire nearly to Europe. The Mongolian people, mostly nomadic tribes residing to the northwest of China, were and sometimes still are painted as barbaric figures, although they certainly were a warlike people. Yet they also brought many interesting changes to China.
You can date the Mongol Ascendancy to the 1200s CE, when a warrior leader named Temujin united most of the nomadic Mongol tribes. The name for ruler in Mongolian is khan, and Temujin took the name Genghis Khan, meaning universal ruler. With the support of most of the Mongol tribes, Genghis was able to conquer a large portion of northern China and central Asia. Within 20 years of the first assault on China, the Mongolian people held most of Asia.
In 1227, Genghis Khan died and his rule passed to his son Ogadai. The vastness of the empire the Mongols controlled during this early portion of the Mongol Ascendancy ultimately resulted in splitting the empire into four pieces. Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan took power in China and eventually defeated the remaining parts of China in the south controlled by the Song Dynasty.
Kublai Khan relied much on the standard style of Chinese governance, which incorporated the beliefs of Buddhism and Confucianism into a system of rule. He did fear too much power being gained by the Chinese natives and gave most government jobs to Mongolians. During his lifetime, he began a number of public works, like restoring the Grand Canal, and building paved highways.
Where the Chinese prior to the Mongol Ascendancy had very little contact with the outside world, the Mongol rulers actively encouraged both land and sea trade. Their powerful armies made safe the caravan routes, like the Silk Roads, and they invited people from foreign lands to see China. For the first time, Europeans actually got an inside look at China.
Especially noted of visitors to China were Marco Polo and his father. Polo ended up working as an assistant to Kublai Khan, staying, some say almost imprisoned by Kublai, for 17 years. His descriptions of China when he returned to Europe were published in book form. Europeans became very interested in the developments of the Chinese, and increasing trade was established between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
The Mongol Ascendancy officially ended in 1368, when the warrior Hongwu overthrew Mongol leadership in China. It had steadily weakened after Kublai’s death in the late 13th century. China would continue to actively trade with Middle Easterners although some dynasties following the Mongol Ascendancy prohibited allowing foreigners into China and discouraged active trading. The wave of trade, and the products China provided could not ever fully be stopped, and today remains intensely active.
From a historical standpoint, and also from a cultural one, the Mongol Ascendancy though it may have been marked at times by brutality, was also an important time for the rest of the world. The amazing innovations of the Chinese would have extraordinary influence over the rest of the world. We owe our use of products like pasta, paper, gunpowder, tea, and porcelain to the ingenuity of the Chinese culture, and the spread of these to the Western world through the Mongol Ascendancy.
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