The initial expansion of the Mongols was ferocious and ferociously effective. Chroniclers from one end of Eurasia to the other record staggering death totals, the impossible numbers aiming for emphasis rather than accuracy. When Europeans sacked a city, it rebuilt its walls to be stronger the next time. When the Mongols sacked Samarkand, the survivors gave up and built a new city next to the ruins; when the Mongols sacked Otrar and Nishapur, they were never rebuilt at all. Sichuan province in China counted 2,500,000 households in its 1228 tax registration; in 1282, the Yuan dynasty’s first census tallied only 500,000. The population loss across from Kiev to China was so precipitous and so slow to recover that the reforestation of newly empty land *lowered atmospheric CO2*.
An obvious reason for the scale of devastation of human lives was simply the size of the imperial conquest–swallowing nearly ten million square miles and countless peoples, polities, and empires. But smaller conquests, even by nomadic warriors like the initial Turks in the Near East, did not have a to-scale destructive impact. Historians have pointed to a number of factors contributing to the Mongols having the opportunity to exercise their ruthlessness so widely.
Steppe nomads like the Mongols didn’t life in self-sufficient isolation; they traded and raided on the fringes of sedentary society. As John Fletcher argues, this meant they benefited from weak governments that “let” them get away with more. Stronger, more stable governments could muster up resistance or defense–which, rather than keeping the Mongols away, made them *fight* for what they wanted instead of negotiating or quietly stealing. Generations of this helped build a *skilled* warrior culture with knowledge of tactics against a strong government. And in their conquests, “strength” was not always a quality of their targets.
One of the Mongols’ most notable features was the forced incorporation of conquered peoples not just into an empire, but into the imperial army. New soldiers from places that had resisted would be dispersed to different thousands to prevent revolts, but serve the Mongols they still would. A solid top-down command hierarchy helped enforce standards at combat and strategic levels. And those who could not serve in the military might nevertheless serve military purposes. If they were lucky, they were the Chinese artisans instructing and constructing siege engines and incendiary artillery. If they were unlucky, they were prisoners-of-war brought to Urgench and Samarkand, and forced to haul stones underneath hails of defenders’ arrows to the ditches around the city–with their bodies being just as useful to the Mongols for filling in the moat.
The Mongols were excellent as individual soldiers and excellent as an army. One of their most notable features was a stunning success rate at triumphing over besieged cities–in the Near East and Europe, generally considered a rather difficult task. Sometimes this came through trickery–approaching the city at first in small parties, basically pretending to be the medieval equivalent of cattle rustlers squirreling away with a city’s herds…only to draw pursuers, group by group, into a death trap. Other times, with the “aid” of prisoners-of-war as human shields, they simply drove directly at city walls to scale them. Siege technology acquired from China, as mentioned earlier, was used as well, but it doesn’t seem to have been the crux of Mongol strategy.
This is the most interesting factor to me, because it helps explain how the utterly ruthless conquering Mongols could transform into *rulers*. In contrast to the example of the Turks I used above, Mongol expansion under Genghis Khan was *lightspeed*. Fletcher and David Morgan have argued that the Mongols adapted to the demands and cost/benefit analyses of urban/sedentary civilization…but this is a process that understandably takes time, and the devastating initial conquests were all over by then. So mores like “leave the city intact because it’s good for your trading network” and “peasants are useful as farmers to supply the battalion you have staged at the fortress with food” were not yet developed as the Mongols stormed through Persia, China, Ruthenia. They were used to their old world divided into “plunder” and “obstacles to plunder.”
**What About Numbers?**
Now, the question of statistics has also come up, and I’ve even offered one set in the introduction–the disappearance of *two million* households from the tax registration in Sichuan. But that already should give some pause before we rubber-stamp murdered by Mongols. We know from Central Asian chroniclers that the advancing Mongols produced hordes of very un-golden refugees–some fleeing in advance, some escaping with their lives. Perhaps this was also the case for some of those people. Or disease, or deportation (another strategy of the Mongols as rulers), or *it’s the Middle Ages and numbers are weird.*
But medieval demographics being what they are–an estimate at *best*, and usually more like a guess–I wouldn’t want to put a number on any death toll, and I don’t see Fletcher, Morgan, Hugh Kennedy, Peter Jackson, Thomas Allsen, etc. going anywhere near one. In the end, it doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know about the Mongol conquest. And with the Mongols, we don’t have modern political needs like the calculation of reparations owed by a still-extant government to the remnant nations they tried to obliterate, or an insistence against nationalists/white supremacists that a particular genocide occurred.
Instead, we can tally up the awe-inspiring reach of the Mongol war machine–people *on horseback, armed with arrows* ravaging from Hungary to Acre to China. And we can read the terror in their targets’ chronicles and letters through the endless tallying of atrocities real and rumored–catapulting the bodies of pestilence victims into the city walls to sicken and kill everyone left alive; rolling up a ruler in carpet and trampling him to death; wiping out entire cities because one general’s son happened to be killed in battle; executing all the male inhabitants of Balkh to terrify Merv into surrendering without a fight…only to kill its women and children along with the men.
That, in the end, is a more useful metric of the Mongols’ impact than a guesswork forty million or any figure. And it’s far more fruitful as a basis to study why on Earth this monstrous, unstoppable behemoth was so heavily courted by Christians and Muslims as a potential ally, and how settled Mongol rule could eventually be such an important catalyst of intercontinental trade and travel.
cthulhushrugged: The Chinese imperial court *looooved* their censuses… and why shouldn’t they? After all, have as accurate a count of their population as possible ensured that they be receiving the maximum appropriate tax due to them. As such, Chinese census data stretches back as far as the imperium itself, which sheds light on not only the effects of the Mongol Explosion across East Asia, but many other massive events as well.
But anyways, as to your question…
#The Effects of the Mongols on China.
We draw our numbers from both the imperial censuses themselves, but also from a number of modern “estimates” of true population size. The discrepancy comes from the fact that for a variety of reasons – untaxed or untaxable populations therefore left uncounted, criminal or otherwise governmentally-averse elements seeking to avoid such agencies, misrepresentation by local and regional officials to potentially “understate” their territory’s “value” to the court (and maybe pocketing the difference, and on that note, as per Kent G. Deng (2003), the modern ideological problem that views “the Chinese empire system [as] inefficient and backward, run by incompetent, rent-seeking bureaucrats who did nothing but cultivating long fingernails. This vision fits in well with Marxist claim that mandarins were little more than economic parasites in society.” This certainly fits with the 20th-21st century Chinese take on such estimates, along with the modernist philosophy of “we know better.”
Anyways, let’s take a look at the numbers…
By all counts, China under the Song Dynasty had reached a population high-water mark by the turn of the 13th century, with the official census logging a little over 75 million people across the empire. More modern estimates put this number significantly higher, though. For instance, the 1978 estimate by McEvedy-Jones puts the total Chinese population that same year at almost 120 million, while Chao (1986) puts Song China over the top of 120 million even earlier – as of 1120, and a later estimate by Maddison (1998) for the year 1280 top out at a “mere” 100 million.
What is universally evident is the precipitous drop-off in China’s population following the creation of Temujin into Genghis Khan and his launching of all-out war against the Song state following the falls of the Jin and Western Xia northern dynasties. Let’s go through cesuses one-by-one…
**Official census (averaged over 3 terms to *smooth out* the kinks, all numbers approximate except where noted):**
* 1195: 75 million
* 1291: 70 million
* 1330: 68 million
* 1393 (the first census taken by the Ming Dynasty): 60,545,812*
So that right there is a drop of 15 million over the course of Mongol rule. *And granted, that includes not just killed but also the dispossessed, those who fled, and those who just went “off grid”.* But the numbers get even more stark looking at the more modern attempt to estimate the “true” size of China at this time.
All of the estimates effectively “bottom out” at the same number: the 60.5 million in 1693. But assuming one takes the modern estimates over the official census date, the results are far more dramatic – depending on which “high-water” estimate you choose to take, China lost anywhere 40-60 million people alone – *again those include much more than deaths, but also people just falling off the database for any number of other reasons.*
Deng’s own re-adjustment is as follows:
* 1195: 112,666,595
* 1291: 59,848,960
* 1330: 77,322,033
* 1381: 59,973,305
Still, no matter how you slice it it’s almost unthinkably huge at even the most conservative estimate. Somewhere between 1/5 and 1/2 of China’s total population vanished in the course of less than 2 centuries.
**And that from a total global population in 1200 of between 360 and 430 million people in 1400.**
That is to say that in China alone, somewhere between 4-17% of the entire global population vanished from the books over the course of the Mongol Yuan reign. It’s notable that between 1200 and 1400, total global population estimates actually dipped *overall* by between 10 and 66 million. This is not just because of direct slaughter, but probably even more so the fallout effects of the disruption of the planting/harvest cycles of agrarian civilizations affected by the Mongol disruption – leading to famines that could last years after the Mongols had vanished over the horizon.
Suffice it to say, estimates of the Mongols being responsible for the deaths of 40 million are plausible, and perhaps even toward the lower-mid range of the spectrum of estimates.
Deng, Kent G. (2003). *Fact or Fiction?
Re-examination of Chinese Premodern Population
Statistics*. Department of Economic History,
London School of Economics.
Durand, John D., 1974, “Historical Estimates of World Population: An Evaluation,”
He, Bingdi. *Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953, Volume 4*.
Mote, F. W. (1999). *Imperial China, 900-1800*.
Mote and Denis Twitchett, eds. (1988). *The Cambridge History of China, volume 7, The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 1.*
Georgy_K_Zhukov: Hey all,
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**Edit:** Report “*1: dont shit on chick-fil-a man, love their food. Say mcdonalds or smth*”
Seriously though, don’t get the impression that I’m shitting on /r/AskHistory here (or by analogy, Chick-fil-A)! Some people would rather have chicken nuggets than chicken cordon-bleu, and that is *totally fine!*. The point is that multiple subreddits exist on this site which complement each other, and allow users to find the experience that *they* want. If I was continuing the analogy, then McDonalds I assume would be /r/ShittyAskHistory.
Aleminha: can we also add to question about how the numbers were actually calculated back then for such stuff…. how was it regulated?
cookedpotato: Follow up question. How large were the mongol inflicted casualties in Europe alone, compared to Asia and the middle east. Which regions of Europe suffered the most? Was it the states of Kievan Rus since they were the closest to them?
Assuming it was the Kievan Rus, how was the military campaign of Kievan Rus with the mongols and what destruction/victories did it see? Quite the loaded question, but an answer would be greatly appreciated.
khalido: Can someone recommend the best “starter” book to learn about the Mongols? Since its a pretty big topic maybe a bio of one of the famous mongols or something?
Something more on the “readable” side rather than being too academic.
GreenEyedDemon: I do not have an answer for you unfortunately, but I would be interested in seeing a picture of that handout if you have it available.