How Genghis Khan’s heirs used the principles of tolerance to build the first wave of globalisation

An excerpt from a new book on the pioneers of globalised business.

Genghis’s heirs continued to expand the Mongol empire. Over the next century they would double its size, adding southern China, all of Iran, most of Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, most of habitable Russia, Ukraine, and half of Poland – in all, roughly 20 percent of the world’s land area.

Genghis had established not only an empire but a governing foundation that his heirs would build into the Pax Mongolica, the period of relative peace and stability that extended over much of Eurasia from 1206 to the mid-fourteenth century. This empire underpinned an era of globalisation that was unprecedented. The Mongols revolutionised warfare, which made their conquests possible, but the empire lasted so long because of the expansion of trade, transportation, and communication; the intermixing of people, ideas, and culture; and the unification of administrative procedures.

The big advantage that the Mongols had over previous empire builders is that they themselves had nothing in the way of deeply ingrained ideas of politics, economics, or culture to spread abroad. They were not driven by ideology or any messianic impulse – only by the hunger to amass wealth. As a result, they did not impose political ideology or cultural or religious ideas on others but, rather, created an environment of extreme tolerance, so long as the basic governing regime wasn’t fundamentally challenged and so long as the booty owed smoothly from the far-flung territories to the Mongolian centre.

Tolerance for religious freedom was particularly notable and reflected the way Genghis thought.

He understood that he had much to gain by showing respect for proud local cultures and influential religious leaders, and he sought out strong relations with them.

Indifferent to controlling matters of religion or culture, the Mongols focused on building commerce and the physical, administrative, and legal infrastructure to help it flow freely. Before the Mongol Empire, for example, few traders were able to travel the entire Silk Road in large part because Arab middlemen in places such as what are today Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon insisted on standing between the buyer and the seller, imposing high taxes on all sides.

At the height of Pax Mongolica, however, there were no significant trade barriers on the road from the Mediterranean to China, where the big cities became cosmopolitan metropolises. In what today is Beijing, Genghis’s grandson Kublai Khan (1260-1294) established special sections for merchants of multiple nationalities from all over the empire, some who came from as far away as Italy, India, and North Africa. The Mongols also encouraged their subjects, particularly the Chinese, to emigrate to foreign trading posts in order to facilitate more commerce.

Genghis’s offspring became great transmitters of art and culture through the trading channels they established.

Their tastes for colorful clothing, silver jewellery, and images of animals provoked a desire throughout the empire to create items that pleased them, leading to a convergence of styles. Moreover, the interconnection among societies resulted in Chinese textiles and painting becoming even more popular in Persia, where Iranian tile work began to re ect the images of the dragon and phoenix that were popular in the Middle Kingdom.

As the number of travelers on the empire’s roads rose, some became notable figures. Marco Polo is the most widely known of these travellers today, but there were many others, including the Muslim jurist Ibn Battuta, the Nestorian Christian Rabban Sauma, the Franciscans John Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck, and the Chinese Confucian Zhou Daguan. Their writings described places from Angkor Wat to Hangzhou to Tabriz to Paris, making these special sites cultural touchstones for elites across the empire.

Under Mongol rule, China’s lustre as an empire was restored. Starting with Genghis Khan, the Mongol leadership transformed the Middle Kingdom from a civilisation torn asunder by civil war and hostile dynasties into a unified nation, capable of outlasting revolts, invasions, and other attempts at foreign domination for six centuries.

In western Asia, the Mongols were able to forge unity among competing Islamic chieftains, giving birth to the modern Persian Empire. Although the Mongols never occupied eastern Europe and the Mediterranean countries, they stimulated a revolution in productivity in these regions by exposing the West to specialised tools, new blast furnace technology, new crops that required less work to plant, and to new concepts such as paper money, primacy of state over church, and freedom of religion.

In 1620, the English scientist Francis Bacon named three innovations that changed the world, citing the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass. All three came to the West during the heyday of the Mongol Empire.

Historian and journalist Nayan Chanda put it well. “Empires played a key role in the rise of governance as they extended rules and regulations over an expanding territory,” he wrote. After pointing to the advances made in the Roman Empire, the Mauryan Empire in India, and the Han Empire in China, he continued:

“The scope of governance grew to a new height under the Mongol Empire...Deep Mongol interest in trading meant that the Silk Road across Central Asia emerged as a well-guarded conveyer belt of goods, people, and ideas. The road, with its Mongol sentry points and inns, its postal system, and its rudimentary passport and credit card (paiza) system, provided unprecedented governance for land-based trade and transportation.”

The empire’s impact on governance in China, in particular, was notable. The administration begun under Genghis would reach its peak under heirs like Kublai Khan, who guaranteed landowners property rights and reduced taxes. Kublai also built an extensive network of schools, professionalised the civil service, and introduced paper money and bankruptcy laws. He established an office for the stimulation of agriculture to improve farmers’ lives and crop yields, and a Cotton Promotion Bureau to improve planting, weaving, and textile manufacturing techniques.

He promoted the arts and literature, translating Persian and other classics into Chinese. He instituted universal education five hundred years before any ruler in Europe did, and he refused to allow public execution of criminals at a time when they were a popular spectacle in Europe. These achievements occurred well after Genghis Khan, but they evolved from his early attempts at establishing a multicultural society spanning vast territory.

Globalisation, Mongol style

It is often said that the first golden age of globalisation began near the start of the industrial revolution in Europe around 1870 and ended in 1914, when the outbreak of World War I shattered the idea that growing political and economic bonds between nations would guarantee peace. This period had indeed experienced a great boom in global trade, investment, migration, and innovations in communications such as the telegraph. But that period is the wrong starting point.

The first golden age was the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was in the era of Genghis and his sons and grandsons when the routes they built and secured opened a new world of possibilities. Europeans were able to buy silk and other rare textiles, exotic spices, even paper-making technology from China. Chinese iron-smelting technology was mixed with Persian engineering skills to build advanced weapons. Medicines from India, China, and Persia were combined to create great advances in pharmacology.

Indeed, the story of Genghis Khan is in microcosm a story about globalisation itself. It illustrates the force that military conquest has played in furthering the connections among disparate societies. It shows how commerce follows conquest, how commerce and culture intersect, and how transport and communications networks become so important. Together with his sons and grandsons, Genghis also faced the enduring challenge of balancing central administrative control with tolerance for local institutions and culture.

In world history no group has contributed more to the expansion and deepening of globalisation than those who built empires encompassing many millions of people and large swaths of geography. After all, globalisation is about connecting on multiple levels and breaking down many of the walls that separate populations of various origins, customs, and beliefs.

Globalisation also entails developing systems of government that centralise administration and enforce common standards of behaviour. The empire that Genghis Khan established in the thirteenth century did both with unprecedented scale and scope. It thus provided one of the most powerful boosts to globalisation ever seen.

Excerpted with permission from From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives, Jeffrey E Garten, Tranquebar.

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