Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why the Mongols won   posted by John Emerson @ 5/17/2009 11:46:00 AM

Below Razib writes: Though militarily and politically the Song were a subpar dynasty, in terms of cultural and economic production they were exceptional. This is peripheral to Razib's main point in the post, but it's an intrinsically important question which to my knowledge has not been adequately discussed anywhere.

The weakness of the Sung was only relative -- they gave the Mongols as tough a fight as anyone did anywhere, and it took the Mongols four or five decades to conquer South China. I think that the real story is that in North China and Mongolia between 900 AD and 1200 AD (starting with the Khitan Liao) there occurred a military revolution unprecedented anywhere in history. The first part consisted of hybrid steppe-sedentary societies developing hybrid armies combining the advantages of both types of military. Steppe cavalry were highly mobile and probably better disciplined and organized than any previous armies, while the sedentary areas solved the logistics problems nomad armies had always had, and also provided siege engines, infantry manpower, and various sorts of scribes, specialists and technicians.

The players were the Khitan Liao, the Jurchen Jin, the Tangut Xixia, the Karakhitan western Liao, the Khwarizmian Turko-Persians, and the Mongols themselves. But note that all of these have hyphenated nomad / sedentary names except the Mongols -- it was the purest nomads who triumphed. What this means to me is that, besides the hybridization revolution, there also must have been some kind of cavalry revolution among the Mongols alone. I have a few ideas about what that might have been: I think that they were ascribable to Genghis Khan himself and consisted mostly of improvements in discipline, organization, and training, but there may also have been improvements in the way cavalry were used.

In any case, Mongolia was a military high-pressure zone during this whole era, even more than it always had been. Again and again defeated armies from this region fled to the west and south, often to set up new kingdoms there. The defeated Khitans from North China set up the Central Asian Karakhitai kingdom, which dominated the hybrid Turko-Persian Khwarizmian kingdom in Central Asia (which in turn dominated the Persian and Middle Eastern world as far as the borders of Arabia), but these Karakhitai later were overwhelmed by Naimans fleeing Genghis Khan. And when the Mongols defeated the whole lot of them, the fleeing remnants became a major force in the Levant, fighting for Islam against the crusaders. Even before the rise of the Mongols there had been a definite NE-->SW direction of military flow.