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What is the Mongol Ascendancy?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Feb 12, 2015

@fify-- Of course they resisted but Mongols had great military leadership and strategy. Also keep in mind that the Mongol ascendancy didn't take place over night. Mongols conquered Northern China first. It took them a long time to conquer Southern China, the Song dynasty. Song dynasty wasn't weak at the time but after the fall of the north, Mongols became even stronger because they used the advanced weapons and also the soldiers of the north against the south. It's also possible that there were other, cultural or social factors that contributed. But as far as I know, this is the consensus among most historians.

Although Mongols were great conquerors because of their fierce militaristic culture, they weren't the best political leaders and that probably lead to their eventual downfall.

By fify — On Feb 11, 2015

I think China was very developed at that time. I'm surprised that Mongols were able to invade China successfully. I'm also surprised that they were able to invade and control China fully but not India. What are the reasons for this? Were Chinese people experiencing internal conflicts for example? Why couldn't they resist the Mongols?

By bluedolphin — On Feb 11, 2015

I'm very happy to finally see an objective article that actually mentions the benefits of Mongol rule of Asia. Most people concentrate on the brutality of Mongols, which no one denies. But it's important to also talk about the benefits their rule provided. If we look at it from a Western perspective, Mongol rule of China benefited Westerners most who became introduced to Chinese goods like spices and silk for the first time ever.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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