China's Story - William Griffis

What the Mongols Did for China

In 1294 the great Khan died, and the Japanese proverb, "There is no seed to the great general," was illustrated.

By her wonderful social system, China is able to absorb all affluents, "salting all the water that flows into it." Gradually the Mongols came under the influence of Chinese civilization, with its comfort, luxury, and culture. Like other tribes, before and since, the Mongol invaders were absorbed in the Family of the Hundred Names. As a distinct people, they disappeared in the Chinese mass, like a lump of lead in the melting-pot.

Kublai was succeeded in 1295 by Tamur. Now, instead of exciting campaigns and thrilling news, there seemed to come a succession of floods, famines, and earthquakes. Lao Tsze had taught that full stomachs made government easy. Hunger creates political trouble. The people, famine-stricken, poor, and discontented, developed a rebellious spirit. In this era sprang up those patriotic secret societies which have ever since been so numerous in China, inciting rebellion and stirring up trouble. The White Lily Society is the most famous, and that of the Boxers the most familiar to us. Their objects are for the most part political, and usually anti-dynastic. In this era they were anti-Mongol. With the idea of "China for the Chinese," they lived in hope of driving out their conquerors and bringing in a native line of rulers.

Mongol camp


These secret societies soon became open bands of rebels, in one of which was a patriotic priest, who left the monastery to become a leader. He showed rare qualities as a fighter and tactician, and under his leadership Nanking was captured. The fall of the Mongol dynasty was now certain.

In the north, not only were fresh tribes menacing the frontier and advancing on Peking, but the Mongols themselves were quarreling over the choice of an heir to the throne. It mattered little, for when the rebels captured Kai Feng, the leader pronounced himself emperor and gave the name of Ming, or Bright, to the new dynasty now founded. Peking was taken. The last Mongol Emperor fled to his ancestral home in Mongolia. The Yuan dynasty passed out of history.

It has been the general fashion among European writers to brand the Mongols as utterly brutal savages, before whose advent civilization melted away, and the land became a desert. No adjective seems sufficiently black for them. Even Japanese authors mourn that the Mongols ravaged the Buddha-garden and destroyed the spiritual unity of Asia. It is evident that nearly all Western people get their notions about the Mongols not wholly from true history, but rather from folklore, romances, and fairy-tales, the nightmare fears of the Middle Ages, and the fantastic legends of the monks. Yet a similar process of description would lower our estimate of other races, who are highly praised, but who, like Assyrians, Romans, Chinese, British, Russians, and Americans, have nearly annihilated native tribes and shed seas of blood. Compared with other conquerors, from the dawn of history to this century, Genghis need not be wholly ashamed. In justice, we must turn to inquire what and who the Mongols were, and what results followed their conquest of China and part of Europe.

We have a wonderful picture of Cathay, or of Mongolian China, in Marco Polo's book. With his uncles he traveled and traded in Kublai's empire, and held office under the great Khan during many years. He told Europe about Japan, giving information which Columbus sought to verify, for he sailed westward over the Sea of Darkness, with the idea of finding, not America, of which he knew nothing, but Nippon and Cathay.

Polo's writings touched the imagination of Europe, helping mightily to stimulate discovery and to unveil the continent of America. For over a century after Columbus, navigators sailed westward to find China, or sought a passage north of America or east of Spitzbergen. While the coast-line of our continent was not yet unveiled, savage America was associated only with fish, furs, gold, or things curious. It was considered rather as an obstacle in the quest for China, which Captain John Smith, Henry Hudson, and many others were bent on finding. Only gradually was America known as a continent which in itself was a source of wealth.

From Marco Polo, who traveled from Venice to China and lived nearly twenty years in the empire, we learn of the high state of prosperity to which China attained under the Mongols, and what broad and liberal ideas the conquerors possessed and welcomed. Starting as savages, they quickly responded to the ideas of civilization. They had a postal system from one end of the empire to the other, with good roads and protection to the traveler. Trade and industry flourished to an extent unknown before. Toleration was shown to all sects. Complete religious liberty was given the followers of Buddha, Jesus, and Mahomet, and to the Jews, but the superstitious and magical practices of the Taoists were put under ban and their books, except the original writings of Lao-Tsze, were ordered to be burned. The Chinese, with their social system thus renovated and enlarged, became almost reconciled to the rule of foreigners.

The Mongol invasion of Europe was not wholly an evil. It hindered the spread of Mahometanism in eastern Asia. It allowed the Christian missionaries to come into Mongolia, where they were for a while so successful that afterwards, when the Turks closed the roads into Asia, thus hindering caravans and traffic, there grew up the legend of a renowned Far Eastern Prester John, who long had the fame of a great church prince. There are "lost" Christian nations in the same sense as there are "lost" tribes of Israel.

The Mongols opened new lines of traffic. Through the freedom of the roads, many valuable discoveries of the Chinese were carried westward, giving half-civilized Europe the rich fruits of Oriental civilization. Our debt to China is vast. Among other things came printing, gunpowder, the mariner's compass, paper money, wall paper, silk, tea, porcelain, banks, etc.

Marco Polo, who in 1295 A.D., while in prison, wrote his book on China—the first in Europe—was laughed at as a romancer, but he told the truth as he saw it, as we now know. Probably no medieval nation in Europe, before 1300 A.D., was on the whole as highly civilized as China. The old text found new application, that our composite Western civilization is but a revised and corrected edition of other civilizations. The Orientals excel at originating, and the Westerners at developing and adapting. Each is debtor to the other.

This subject deserves further study, but it is manifest that the Mongols were not wholly a curse to the world, and that the progress of the race was hastened by bringing together the nations at opposite ends of the earth's greatest island, the Eurasian continent.

The Mongols in India, called Moguls, descendants of Tamerlane, produced, in the sixteenth century, one of the most liberal lines of rulers known in history. Under them there arose a brilliant civilization. Men of genius from both China and Europe were invited, like the yatoi, whom the Japanese from 1870 to 1900 employed to reconstruct their civilization, to lend their aid and talents in making the Mogul Empire lovely as well as strong. Some of the fairest works of art and architecture known on earth, such as the Taj Mahal and Kutub Minar, have arisen from the blending of the Italian, the Mongol, and the Hindoo genius. In every country the Mongols showed a talent for absorbing what was good and noble in the civilization amid which they dwelt. What the Tartar genius is capable of, when fused with that of other races, is clearly discerned in China, Japan, and Korea, by all who have openness of mind to see. The later Tartars, or Manchus, became "the most improvable race in Asia."

In Russia the contact of the Mongols had certain striking results still visible in the Czar's dominions. Ordinary horses would have died during the long winter, which in the Russian vernacular is first green, then white, then black; during which the ground is wholly covered, and food for ordinary cattle is provided only by the forethought of man. The Mongol ponies, with their long snouts, were able to dig into the snow, throw it up, and find and feed upon the buried grass and plentiful moss. The Mongols conquered by their better arms, discipline, and tactics. They secured a foothold which enabled them to remain in Russia two centuries. Indeed, they were not wholly driven out until about the time of Peter the Great. The long dwelling of these Orientals in Russia has left its mark upon the faces and forms of the Russians, many of whom, in that conglomerate empire, are more Mongolian, or Tartar, than are many of the Japanese, who have in them a powerful strain of true Aryan and Semitic blood.

Not least of the Mongols' gifts to China was the stimulus and fertilization of the native intellect in the domain of the imagination. The great literary achievements are to be credited to them, the drama and the novel. Previously the court had songs, music, and acting, besides the blending of the two in the opera. Indeed, in A.D. 713, one of the Han emperors established the Imperial Dramatic College, as it may be called, in which hundreds of male and female performers were trained to amuse him with their music and acting. These were called Young Folks of the Pear Garden, by which name Chinese actors call themselves to this day.

Nearly all dramatic pieces were at first religious. Development was made during the Middle Ages, but there was no real theatre or full dramatic performance until the Mongol era. Then the plays were worked up by the Chinese from their own history and social life. Some, in origin, were from Western players and musicians at the Mongol court. Then, from the court to the people came the dramas and plays illustrating life. Tragedy, melodrama, and comedy, as acted on the stage, are now common in China. These had been long known among the Mongols and were introduced by them, the Chinese theatre of to-day having changed little from the days of Kublai. Now there are theatres and strolling players all over China. In most of the villages the theatre and stage are put up with bamboo and matting by expert artificers. After the play, which lasts two or three days, the temporary structure is removed.

Whether the Mongols brought the romance from that paradise of the story-tellers, in central Asia, where grew up from the soil of Persia, India, and Arabia the so-called Arabian Nights' Entertainments, or whether they invented it in China, the credit of the Chinese novel belongs to the Yuan era. Before this time there were only fables, anecdotes, short stories, and the lore that Buddhism supplied. Whether the novel was developed out of the drama, or from the Buddhist mystery and morality plays and pageants, cannot yet be said. There is a vast storehouse of fiction, but only a few Chinese novels have been translated. In four-fold division, they deal with usurpation or plots; love and intrigue; superstition, local legend, mythical zoology, etc.; or with lawless characters; exactly as in American cheap fiction.

In the voluminous folklore of China one soon learns to detect the elements, Taoist, Buddhist, primitive, or medieval, and to recognize the symbols, characters, and course of the story. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are three separate worlds of ideas, differing one from another as do air, earth, and water; birds, beasts, and fishes.

At home, in China, Mongol supremacy was at first the rule of cow-boys in the cities. Yet while the men who governed moved around more freely on horseback, carrying messages and transacting public business with a celerity that startled the staid natives, the Chinese women retreated still further into privacy and security. It is often sup-posed in Europe that the custom of foot-binding arose because husbands wished to keep their wives at home and to prevent them from gadding about. On the contrary, as in our own country, it was the decree of fashion that led women to make martyrs of themselves in order to have small and pretty feet. Chinese girls suffer years of pain and even agony in order to turn one of the most beautiful things in nature—the human foot—into a hoof, or something that custom calls beautiful when within an embroidered slipper. Such extremities might be attractive if belonging to sheep or gazelles.

Chinese writers say that a paragon of female beauty in the person of Yao Niang, the lovely concubine of the last of the Southern line of Tang emperors, began the practice. According to poetical tradition, her feet were pinched and "cramped into the semblance of the new moon." Such an example set at court was soon followed, and became so general that it will require generations of argument and disapproval to break up the custom.

Undoubtedly the rough manners of the Mongols drove Chinese women into stricter privacy, and helped to immure women. Centuries of Confucianism, foot-binding, and abominable customs still tolerated have contributed to make it an ordeal for decent women to appear freely on the streets of a Chinese city, encouraging also female slavery and the multiplication of the wrong kind of women, to the detriment of public morals.

Deeper notes were struck in the Chinese consciousness, and imagination was kindled by the clash of alien with native humanity. Certainly from this era literature is infused with a new spirit and takes on more fascinating forms. The sublimity of thought and boldness of imagery stimulated may be best set forth to the Western mind by the following poem:—

"See the five variegated peaks of yon mountain, connected like the finders of the hand,

And rising up from the south, as a wall midway to heaven:

At night, it would pluck, from the inverted concave, the stars of the milky way;

During the day, it explores the zenith and plays with the clouds.

The rain has ceased—and the shining summits are apparent in the void expanse;

The moon is up and looks like a bright pearl over the expanded palm;

One might imagipe that the Great Spirit had stretched forth an arm.

From afar—from beyond the sea—and was numbering the Nations."