The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire, initiated by Genghis Khan and continued by his descendents such as Kublai Khan, extended over the vast territory over Asia and into the depths of Eastern and Central Europe. What is perhaps most surprising about the military successes of the Mongol Empire is the fact that the Mongol people were essentially a relatively small tribe of migrant peoples, living a type of nomad lifestyle in the Mongol steppes. Yet at the same time such a lifestyle translated itself into an optimal military apparatus for conquering: the mobility of the Mongol forces was one of the key factors that led to their military dominance and almost historically unprecedented successes in the art of war and campaigning.

The documentary from the History Channel, a part of the Dynasties Series, and specifically dedicated to Kublai Khan and the Mongol Emperor helps the lay-historian understand why such unprecedented successes were in fact possible. In fact, one can further identify the reasons why the Mongol Empire was so successful in terms of the following main reasons: the mobility of their armed forces, and the influence of a Confucian philosophy, particularly upon Kublai Khan, which emphasized unity in the family, harmony in the state, and peace in the empire.

In regards to mobility of the armed forces, according to the aforementioned documentary, Mongol children at the age of three were already adept at shooting the composite bow and riding horses. Hence, Mongol culture can be considered to be an adept military culture, in so far as the importance of basic military skills was emphasized at an early age. In addition, the wide open steppes of Eurasia meant that the Mongol forces could easily extend into territories that were easily accessible by their military tactics. The combination of composite bow and horse-riding gave the Mongols a swift and efficient unit for military operations, effective at subjugating any enemies.

Yet the strength of the Mongol Empire is not only reducible to their military tactics. Without a greater philosophical worldview, holding together the vast territories acquired through military success would be impossible. According to the documentary, Confucian philosophy was key for example to the rule of Kublai Khan. Two aspects are here crucial: harmony in the state and peace in the empire.

In terms of harmony in the state, Mongols realized that the structure of political power had to be efficient. Hence, Genghis Khan realized the intelligence of his grandson Kublai Khan: merit was praised in the Mongol Empire. This meant that the most effective leaders would advance to key positions so as to secure harmony of the state power apparatus.

Yet peace in the empire was a simultaneous goal. The Mongols understood that an empire made of chaos would lead to disintegration. Hence, encouraging peace, although perhaps through violent means, was deemed crucial. They thus understand the importance of a homogenous state unit.

In this regard, I can suggest that the Mongol Empire was so successful because it synthesized successful military tactics with a broader philosophical worldview influenced by Confucian philosophy. Without good military tactics, the empire could not have extended to acquire the territories that it did. However, on the other hand, without a consistent philosophy that emphasized peace and harmony, they would be unable to maintain the Empire.

The documentary from the History Channel succeeds in emphasizing both of these aspects of the Mongolian Empire. Accordingly, it dispels many of our myths about the inferiority of Asian culture in comparison to European and Western culture. The Mongol Empire, in its vast successes, which were not only propagated on military efficiency, shows precisely how a combination of efficient military tactics and philosophical worldview may form a strong empire: History Channel’s documentary communicates precisely this insight.