Battle of the Sajó River [Battle of Mohi]

Béla IV flees from Mohi, detail from Chronicon Pictum

Date April 11, 1241

Location Muhi on the Sajó River in northeastern Hungary

Opponents (* winner)



*Mongols Commander Subotai

Hungarians King Béla IV

Approx. # Troops

*Mongols As many as 120,000

Hungarians More than 100,000


The Mongols ravage eastern Hungary and Transylvania and gain access to all central Europe

The victory over a Hungarian army led by King Béla IV at Muhi on the Sajó River gave the Mongols access to all of Central Europe. Genghis Khan died in 1227, but his son and successor, Ogatai Khan, continued Mongol expansion. The Mongols conquered Korea in 1231 and defeated the Chin Empire during 1231–1234. In 1235 in the course of a conference with Mongol leaders, Ogatai outlined a plan of expansion in four areas: China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.

The offensive against Eastern Europe began in 1236–1237, when Ogatai sent 130,000 Mongols into the region. Batu Khan had nominal command, but Subotai exercised real command. Subotai defeated the Bulgars and then led his army across the frozen Volga River in December 1237. In the course of their winter campaign the Mongols destroyed the northern Russian principalities, culminating in the defeat and death of Grand Prince Yuri II of Vladimir in the Battle of the Sil River on March 4, 1237. At the same time, Mongol forces to the south entered the Ukraine, where they reorganized and reequipped their forces.

During the next two years Subotai consolidated Mongol control over eastern and southern Russia. While the states of Central and Western Europe knew little about Mongol conquests or intentions, the Mongols gathered accurate intelligence about the political situation to their west. Subotai began the offensive in November 1240 with 150,000 men, again campaigning in winter to achieve maximum mobility on horseback in the marshlands and across frozen rivers. When Kiev rejected surrender demands, Subotai captured it on December 6.

Leaving behind 30,000 men to control the conquered territory and maintain his lines of communication, Subotai invaded Central Europe with 120,000 men. The Mongols moved on four axes. Kaidu, grandson of Ogatai, commanded the northern flank; Batu and Subotai had charge of the two central forces; and Kadan, son of Ogatai, protected the southern flank. The two middle forces were to pass through the central Carpathians into Transylvania and then meet at Pest, on the east bank of the Danube.

Kaidu meanwhile moved into Silesia, defeating a Polish army under King Boleslav V at Kraków (Cracow) on March 3, 1241. To meet Kaidu, Prince Henry of Silesia put together a mixed force of some 40,000 Silesians, Germans, Poles, and Teutonic Knights. King Wenceslas of Bohemia marched north with 50,000 men to join them. However, Kaidu struck before the two opposing forces could join. In the hard-fought Battle of Legnica (known as the Battle of Liegnitz in German and also called the Battle of Wahlstatt) on April 9, 1241, Kaidu smashed Prince Henry’s army. Kaidu then halted, having achieved his aims of devastating North-Central Europe and preventing its armies from moving south.

The Mongol southern advance had gone well. In mid-April the Mongols secured Transylvania, and Kadan drove north through the Iron Gates to join Subotai. On March 12, 1241, Hungarian king Béla IV, informed of the Mongol advance, called a conference of nobles at Buda, on the west bank of the Danube, to discuss how to meet the threat. On March 15 the conferees learned that the Mongol advance guard had already arrived at Pest, just opposite Buda.

Sure that the Pest defenses could hold the attackers, Béla IV gathered some 100,000 men over the next two weeks. At the beginning of April he set out from Pest to meet the invaders, confident that he had sufficient strength to defeat them. The Mongols withdrew before Béla’s cautious advance. Late on April 10 about 100 miles northeast of Pest, the Hungarians encountered and defeated a weak Mongol force defending a bridge at Muhi on the Sajó River, a tributary of the Tisza. Béla IV then established a strong bridgehead on the east bank of the Sajó and camped for the night with the bulk of his force on the west bank in a strong defensive position of wagons chained together.

The Mongols attacked the Hungarians before dawn on April 11, 1241, striking the bridgehead with arrows and with stones hurled by catapults, followed closely by an infantry assault. The defenders fought fiercely, and the Hungarians sortied from the main camp to their aid.

They soon discovered that the attack was only a feint. Subotai had led 30,000 men across the river some distance south of the bridge, and this force now came in from the south and rear of the Hungarians. The Hungarians found themselves packed in a small space and devastated by Mongol arrows, stones, and burning naptha. King Béla IV managed to escape with some of his men to the north toward Pozsony (Bratislava). Although Mongol losses in the battle were heavy, the Hungarian force was virtually destroyed. It suffered between 40,000 and 70,000 dead, including much of the Magyar nobility.

With this Hungarian defeat, only the Danube River prevented a further Mongol advance. The Mongols held Eastern Europe from the Dnieper to the Oder and from the Baltic to the Danube. In a campaign lasting only four months, they had destroyed Christian forces numbering many times their own. Following the victory, the Mongols ravaged all eastern Hungary and Transylvania. With a majority of its settlements having been destroyed and a large portion of the population slain during the Mongol occupation, which lasted until 1242, the Hungarian state had to be completely reconstituted.

References Allsen, Thomas. Mongol Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Grousaset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970. Nicolle, David. The Mongol Warlords: Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, Hulegu, Tamerlane. London: Brookhampton, 1998.


The Mongol Turned Back?

The Mongol devastation of Hungary alerted western Europe to what might be in store for it: but suddenly Batu and his hordes were gone, the danger was over and Europe could breathe again. From that day to this the question of why they turned back has exercised historians. The most commonly accepted ‘explanation’ is that after Ogodei’s death every Mongol was bound in duty to return to Mongolia to elect his successor. Accepting the (likely) cause of the khan’s death as poisoning by his aunt, as against the convenient notion that it was alcoholism, a leading Russian historian has commented: ‘This woman, whoever she was, must be considered the saviour of Western Europe.’

But this idea is not convincing, for a number of reasons. In the first place, the quriltai that elected Guyuk as khaghan did not take place until 1246, four and a half years after Ogodei’s death. Secondly, Batu did not return to Mongolia (lingering, as we have seen, in the Volga region), for he was very well informed about all the intrigues that flickered through Karakorum after Ogodei’s death and thought (rightly) that his life would be in danger.

Thirdly, senior commanders and Mongol notables were not in any case automatically recalled to Mongolia after Ogodei’s death. The most salient example is that of Baiju, Mongol commander in Iraq and western Iran, whom Ogodei had appointed as Chormaqan’s successor. On 26 June 1243 Baiju won a shattering victory over the Seljuk Turks under Kaykhusraw II at Kose Dag against the odds. (Allegedly he dismissed the numerical superiority of the Seljuks with a typical Mongol comment: ‘The more they are, the more glorious it is to win and the more plunder we will secure.’) As a result of this triumph, which made the years 1241–43 rival 1220–22 for non-stop Mongol victories, the empire of Trebizond in Anatolia submitted to Baiju and his armies were able to advance into Syria. But there was no question of his having to return to Mongolia for a quriltai.

Another possible explanation is that the Mongols abandoned the idea of an invasion of western Europe because the terrain, largely forested and with no great plains, would not have provided the forage and pasture needed for their horses and other animals. It is alleged that even in Hungary the Mongols were operating to the limit of their capacity, for the puszta, the Great Hungarian Plain, was the only area of grassland west of the Black Sea capable of supporting horses on any scale; here they were limited to 40,000 square miles, as against the 300,000 square miles in the great steppes of their homeland. To feed 100,000 horses one would need 4,200 tonnes of grain in winter or summer, and where would this come from unless, implausibly, it was transported 8,000 miles from Mongolia? Additionally, warhorses needed a lot of care from grooms and wranglers, increasing the numbers the Mongols would have to deploy, and were susceptible to precisely the diseases and parasites that the cold and damp of northern Europe would engender.

Against this theory one can cite factors which might be considered ‘circumstantial evidence’. The Mongols were capable of adapting their military methods, as they demonstrated in the long war with Song China and particularly under Qubilai when they attempted conquests in Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan – though, with the exception of the conquest of Song China, it is notable that none of these campaigns was successful. Napoleon operated with huge numbers of horses in his conquests and as late as the Second World War the Germans were able to utilise millions of horses even with the depleted grazing grounds in industrial Europe. One can, however, argue that such comparisons are anachronistic: by the time of Napoleon much more of Europe had been converted to pasture, and in the case of the Second World War one has to factor in railways, superior veterinary corps and mobile horse transports, none of which was available to the Mongols. Tellingly, though, the Huns under Attila, also entirely dependent on horses for their military superiority, fought campaigns in Italy and France, where it was not problems of pasture that halted them. A judicious conclusion would be that horses and pasturage certainly played some part in the Mongol decision to withdraw.

Another popular theory is that the entire question is misplaced, since the Mongols never intended to conquer western Europe. According to this version the Mongols invaded Hungary purely to punish Bela for having harboured the Cumans and to ensure that there could be no threat to Batu’s ulus in Rus – the Golden Horde. This idea has the merit of simplicity – for the Mongol withdrawal would then need no explanation – but is in conflict with a mass of inconvenient evidence, not least that the Mongols were hopelessly divided. In short, while this was almost certainly Batu’s aim, it was not Subedei’s, as he stated that his dream was to behold the Atlantic. There is no documentary evidence as to what exactly Ogodei’s instructions to his two commanders were, but it is likely that they were issued on a contingency basis – that if the conquest of the Rus states and eastern Europe went well, he would provide the necessary resources for the conquest of western Europe.

What is certain is that Batu’s decision to return to the Volga caused a major rift with Subedei. He cut all his links with Batu, rode back to Mongolia with his retainers and openly supported Guyuk and the houses of Ogodei and Tolui against Batu and the house of Jochi. He avoided all involvement in the murderous intrigues of 1242–46 but was present in 1246 at the quriltai that elected Guyuk. He then retired to the homeland of his Uriangqai tribe east of Lake Baikal, where he died in 1248 aged 72. His son Uriankhadai went on to great things under Mongke in the war against the Song.

It is fairly clear from all the evidence that Subedei, Ogodei and Guyuk all wanted to conquer western Europe. Carpini in 1245 reported that Guyuk had a threefold project: election as khaghan, defeat of Batu in the civil war that had by then broken out between them, and then a fresh invasion of Poland and Hungary as a launch-pad for the conquest of Germany and Italy. Guyuk claimed he wanted to attack Germany first, and proved that he had very good intelligence about the emperor Frederick’s military capability, but Carpini told his colleague Salimbene di Adam he was convinced that Guyuk’s real objective was Italy, both because of its wealth and because that was where ‘Stupor Mundi’ (not to mention the Pope) had his power base. Despite Carpini’s boasting about German military might, which implied that the choice of Italy was the softer option, the likelihood is that the Mongols, knowing of the emperor’s predilection for Italy, had simply decided to go for the jugular.

Carpini noted that Guyuk was supremely realistic and was planning for a campaign that was expected to last eighteen years before victory was assured. As to the chances of success, the consensus of historians then and since was that the Mongols would have reached the Atlantic, but only provided their empire was united in a concerted, monolithic endeavour. Nor would Byzantium have been spared, as a Byzantine expert has pointed out: ‘The successors of Genghis Khan . . . could doubtless have swept the Byzantine as well as the Latin and Bulgarian empires out of existence had the mood taken them.’ This was all the more so since, whereas the Mongols knew every last nuance of European politics, the West was still mired in ignorance about them, variously identifying them as the Ishmaelites or the Antichrist, the forces of Satan, the chaos world, the allies of heterodoxy, anarchy and disorder, fomenters of Islam, Cathars, Lombardy separatists or even the shock troops of an international Jewish conspiracy.

The West, in short, was long on emotion but short on reason and intelligence. Carpini claimed to have discovered the secret of how the West could defeat the Mongols in battle, but this was no more than propaganda to keep Western spirits up. While he whistled in the dark, more sober observers were stupefied by the Mongol withdrawal and suspected it might be like the Greeks’ abandonment of Troy when they left behind the wooden horse. Matthew Paris thought the ‘Tartars’ would come again and that nothing could stop them reaching the Atlantic. The Council of Lyons in 1245 heard an estimate from one bishop that the war with the Mongols might well last thirty-nine years – it is not clear where this exactitude came from.

The sober truth was that by 1242 the Mongol empire was hopelessly divided by faction fighting, that civil war loomed and that anything so momentous as an invasion of Western Europe was not remotely conceivable. Batu, in short, withdrew from Europe because of manpower shortages and the looming conflict with Guyuk, and retreated to the upper Volga to prepare for the trial of strength which he knew would come.

His main problem was an acute lack of men. Once it was known that Ogodei was dead, the levies formerly loyal to Guyuk and Buri demanded to be allowed to return home, and there was nothing Batu could do to stop them unless he wanted a mini-civil war in his own empire; Mongke went with them, taking back to Karakorum his own anti-Batu version of the infamous banquet and the subsequent feud. It was then that Batu showed his calibre as a politician. He may have been mediocre as a battlefield commander but he excelled in diplomacy and intrigue. Even before Ogodei died, while Batu planned the future of what would become the Golden Horde, he decided to shore up his position by seeking allies among the Rus princes, and he proved a shrewd picker.

Deeply unpopular with Novgorod’s boyars, Alexander Nevsky had left the city for two years after his victory over the Swedes at the Neva but was then hurriedly recalled when the Teutonic Knights invaded Russia and took the city of Pskov to the west of Novgorod. Purging the pro-German clique in Novgorod, Nevsky engaged the knights and their allies in a minor battle on the ice of Lake Peipus on 5 April 1242. The numbers involved on both sides were not large; only about one hundred Teutonic knights took part, with the rest of their army being Swedish and Lithuanian volunteers. Nevsky won a complete victory, though the Suzdalian chronicle attributes the real merit in this success to Alexander’s brother Andrei. Only about twenty knights were killed (‘hardly indicative of a major encounter’ as a sceptical historian notes), and there was no mass destruction when the German army plunged through the ice after it gave way under their weight. Russian nationalists such as the Metropolitan Kirill in his Life of Nevsky elevated what was not much more than a skirmish to one of the great battles of the ages; Soviet propagandists reinforced this bogus view and this is the perception that has stuck. Nevsky, meanwhile, was acclaimed as one of the very greatest Russian heroes, and canonised by the Orthodox Church both for his staunch opposition to overtures from an ecumenical Vatican and for his stoical and self-denying submission to Mongol rule.

The historical Nevsky, as opposed to the legendary creature so beloved in Russian mythology, was a slippery and serpentine character. The most significant thing about the battle of Lake Peipus is that Batu’s envoys were present at Nevsky’s side as military advisers; certainly the threat from the Teutonic Knights was the most important factor leading him to throw in his lot with the Mongols. In fact Nevsky’s relations with the Mongols were a tale of ambivalence and duplicity, with the hero self-servingly and ruthlessly focusing on his ambitious political goals; it was this that dictated his unswerving loyalty to Batu and his successors.

Batu rewarded him by supporting him against his brother Andrei, who favoured religious rapprochement with Rome. The Mongols were very hard on Russians who tried to entangle the Vatican, thought to be the ‘nerve centre’ and real seat of power in the West. When Alexander’s father Grand Prince Yaroslav seemed likely to renounce Russian Orthodoxy and submit to the papacy, the Mongols had him poisoned, though authorities differ on whether the ‘contract’ on his life was ordered by Batu or Ogodei’s widow Toregene. After Batu’s death Nevsky enjoyed particularly good relations with the next khan of the Golden Horde, Sartaq (he was said to have entered into an anda relationship with him) who became a Christian. Even though Sartaq was probably poisoned by his uncle Berke, who succeeded him and converted to Islam, Nevsky continued on amicable terms with the new khan. As he had shown in the case of his father, and now his blood brother, Nevsky was not the kind of person to allow emotion and sentiment to get in the way of realpolitik.

Ogodei’s death really signalled the end of the Mongol empire that Genghis had striven so hard to found, though the formal structure continued in existence until the end of the 1250s. Guyuk was not elected as khaghan until 1246, a delay which had a fourfold explanation. It took that long for his mother, the Regent Toregene, to muster the necessary support; there was uncertainty about Batu’s intentions, with Subedei vainly trying to act the honest broker and reconcile him and Guyuk; there was a general moral crisis in Mongolia because of the widespread rumour that Ogodei had been poisoned; and the shamans all declared that an early election would be inauspicious.

Il-Khanate (1256–1335/56)



Created as a result of MÖNGKE KHAN ’s 1252 decision to send his brother HÜLE ’ Ü (1217–65) to the Middle East, the resulting Il-Khanate dynasty suffered from hostility on three fronts and severe social conflicts.


Until 1252 the Mongols’ great khan, the Jochid GOLDEN HORDE , and the other princely lines shared rule over the area from Afghanistan to Turkey. The great khan appointed governors and confirmed client kings, but always with the prior approval of the Jochid ruler on the Volga. No member of the imperial family resided in this area, but many had appanages in the area and appointed representatives to guard their interests. Two TAMMACHI , or permanent garrison armies, occupied the area, one based in Afghanistan and the other based in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Neither was commanded by a member of the imperial family. In 1252 Möngke appointed his brother Hüle’ü to campaign personally in the Middle East, thus upsetting this balance. RASHID – UD – DIN FAZL – ULLAH claims that Möngke secretly intended from the beginning that Hüle’ü would stay permanently in the Middle East despite public plans for Hüle’ü to return at the end of his mission.

As soon as he crossed the Amu Dar’ya, Hüle’ü took the Azerbaijan area for himself, ordering Baiju Noyan, commander of the tammachi troops there, to relocate to Anatolia. After his conquest of Baghdad in February 1258, Hüle’ü began calling himself Il-Khan, or “obedient khan,” implying a status as a deputy or viceroy of the great khan Möngke, despite the public statement that Hüle’ü would return to Mongolia. Thus, when Möngke Khan died in August 1259, Hüle’ü’s status was unclear. By 1260 criminal accusations leveled against Jochid princes in Hüle’ü’s service strained relations with the Golden Horde rulers, and in 1262 a complete purge of the Jochid princes and Hüle’ü’s support for QUBILAI KHAN in his conflict with ARIQ – BÖKE brought open war with the Golden Horde. Nevertheless the special contempt shown toward the Il-Khans by the rulers of the Golden Horde and CHAGHATAY KHANATE demonstrated the khanate’s latecomer status.


The administration of the Il-Khans centered on the khan elected at a QURILTAI (assembly). Like previous Turkish dynasties in Iran, the Mongol dynasty did not have a fixed succession rule. Stable succession thus depended on consensus among the great commanders ( NOYAN ). As in the Yuan dynasty, a threefold ethnic class distinction of the conquest elite, the subject class, and an intermediate mixed class permeated government. The division of the first two classes, often summarized as “Mongols and Muslims,” was as much cultural, social, and political as strictly religious. Mongol meant the nomadic military class and Muslim the native sedentary Iranian and Iraqi population. The intermediate class was specialists and royal clients who were either foreign (Turkestanis), non-Muslim (Assyrians, Armenians, Jews), or both ( UIGHURS , Chinese). Ghazan Khan’s reign eliminated the intermediate class’s previous power. The core of the Mongol class was the khan’s household, consisting of his own keshig, or imperial guard, and intimate servitors and the palace-tents ( ORDO ) of his wives with their affiliated estates. These estates, or injü ( INJE ), constituted the khan and his family’s private demesne, in contrast to the dalai, or state lands. The keshig was divided into four three-day shifts, and from 1291 on the four shift chiefs, three of whom were drawn from the Mongol great noyans, countersigned all decrees of the khan with their black seals. Among the chief noyans, the families of Elege of the JALAYIR and Su’unchaq of the Suldus were the most prestigious. The OIRATS of Diyarbakir, frequent QUDA (marriage allies) of the khans, remained a discrete tribal body. Outside the court was the Mongol army, organized by the traditional DECIMAL ORGA – NIZATION and clan affiliations. Opposite these Mongol noyans was the financial administration, staffed by Persian Sunni Muslim clerks and headed by one or two viziers (always two after 1295), the senior of whom handled the supreme red seal, or al tamgha. Nevertheless the Mongol and Persian orders were not hermetically sealed. The great noyans had their own appanages administered by Persian clients, provincial commanders and governors frequently colluded, and the senior vizier himself served in the keshig as the head of the khan’s personal three-day shift. 233 By 1305 a number of autonomous client kingdoms had been turned into provinces, and Ghazan Khan’s reforms of 1300 created for the first time a single coinage and standard of weights and measures. By the dynasty’s end the Il-Khan regime had eight directly administered provinces of the center, in addition to the semi-independent viceroyalties of Khorasan and Anatolia. In addition to the universal qubchiri, or poll tax, the eight central provinces paid “divan dues” based on traditional agricultural taxes, while the center’s 20 main cities paid separate tamgha, or commercial tolls. Major cities and the provinces received a (usually) Persian malik (governor) who handled finance and administration, a Mongol emir, or noyan, who commanded the troops, and a DARUGHACHI (Persian, shahna) of the Mongol or intermediate class. Assignment of important provinces (particularly GEORGIA , Diyarbakir, and Iraq) as camping grounds for princes offered a further layer of supervision. The Il-Khanate practiced the traditional muqata‘at, or tax-farming system. The treasury drew up contracts specifying the total amount of taxes paid and the deductions the tax farmer could take for expenses. Maliks of major provinces were usually concurrent tax farmers, subcontracting the taxes in districts and villages. Theoretically, the tax farmer could not collect more than the contracted amount, but supervision was lax and over collection rife. The eager attention the Il-Khans usually paid to reports from ayqaqs (informers) about untapped or embezzled revenues put constant upward pressure on taxes and made the tenure of governors and viziers exceedingly uncertain—all but one of the viziers under the Il-Khans were executed with torture on charges of embezzlement, treason, or both. Hüle’ü stored the booty of his conquests of 1256–58 in a tower by Lake Urmia, but by Sultan Ahmad’s reign (1282–84) the tower had partially collapsed, and the remaining treasure was shared out as coronation gifts. From then on the treasury was carried in the khan’s ordo in chests. Except under diligent khans such as Ghazan Khan, treasury procedures were lax and embezzlement routine. Unbudgeted drafts on outlying provinces hindered financial planning, and random seizures by messengers (elchi) damaged the economy. These problems peaked in the 1290s. Ghazan Khan’s reforms did curb the abuses, particularly of the messenger system, but did not eliminate the constant pressure for more revenue.


The immigrant Mongols, composed of the tammachi (garrison) armies dispatched in the 1230s to Afghanistan and to the Armenia-Azerbaijan area, as well as Hüle’ü’s new army, constituted the Il-Khan’s military core. Nevertheless once counted and incorporated into the decimal organization, designated military households in the settled population also supplied infantry and cavalry that served under Mongol commanders in garrisons or the field. The theoretical reserve of the Il-Khan’s army added up to 30 tümens (each nominally 10,000), although tümens averaged perhaps only 40 percent of paper strength. In reality the largest battlefield force ever mobilized was about 70,000 men. Thus, the Il-Khans had enough troops only to confront one of their three major enemies—Egypt, the Golden Horde, or the Chaghatayids—at a time. The court equipped and provisioned at most one out of five army units, leaving remoter units, Mongol or native, to feed and equip themselves. Even so, the Il-Khanid army was better armed than the larger Chaghatayid and Golden Horde forces. In addition to the Mongol units, Georgian cavalry participated in virtually every battle, and the client kingdoms of Lesser Armenia and Seljük Turkey in the west and Kerman and Fars in the east also supplied troops for major campaigns.

Mongol Conquest of Korea




The Jin made one last attempt to retrieve their situation in 1217, failed, and definitively abandoned the province. But Yelu Liuke’s pro-Mongol grip on the country was always shaky, with a majority of Khitans yearning for independence, and in the very same year a powerful anti-Mongol alliance under Han-she plunged the country into civil war. Yelu managed to defeat him, but Han-she retreated into Korea with most of his army intact. Korea itself was already in turmoil, convulsed by the aftermath of an attempt at a coup d’état in which 800 Buddhist monks perished.91 The Khitan invaders swept all before them and occupied the capital, Kaesong; the bewildered Koreans, at first not knowing what had hit them, initially appealed for help to the Song, who were uninterested.92 Hard on the heels of the Khitans came Yelu and his Mongol allies with a powerful army. Yelu ran the rebel Khitans to earth, powering his way through terrible snowstorms to do so. He defeated the rebels, Han-she hanged himself, and his 10,000-strong force surrendered; the Mongols beheaded about a hundred of the officers.

As a result of this incursion, Korea became part of the Mongol empire. The Korean king submitted but was ill requited: the first Mongol envoy sent to his court acted boorishly, making a point of wearing a bow and arrow to his first audience, seizing the monarch’s hands and roughly thrusting Genghis’s greetings into them. An annual tribute was fixed in 1221: Korea agreed to provide 10,000 pounds of cotton, 3,000 bolts of silk, 2,000 pieces of gauze and 100,000 enormous sheets of paper; in 1223 the tribute was consolidated into an annual quota of valuable sea-otter skins. Yelu died in 1220, so the Mongols simply annexed both Manchuria and Korea.

There were several consequences of the Mongol absorption of Korea. They employed a policy of mass human transportation, moving any troublesome Koreans into north China. They were bowled over by the beauty of Korean women, who became highly prized as wives and concubines. Genghis’s favourite wife Qulan was considered so beautiful that it was commonly said that she was a Korean princess. The Mongols also appropriated all the choicest agricultural land and earmarked it as part of Temuge’s appanage. At a more general level the Mongols smashed the traditional balance of the three-way relationship between China, Korea and Manchuria, though this rhythm would reassert itself after the Mongol era. Ironically, the Mongol invasion had the unintended effect of producing a true national consciousness in Korea. One result of all this was that, after Muqali’s death in 1223, the Koreans rose in rebellion. Preoccupied elsewhere, the Mongols did not put down the insurrection until 1233. As a final irony the Koryo dynasty, founded in 918, managed to limp on until 1392, thus outliving the Liao, the Jin, the Song and even the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China.


Muqali was unquestionably a captain of genius and he had performed wonders for Genghis in China while permanently short of manpower. It was Muqali who enabled Genghis to fight successfully on two fronts – something that would later elude Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler and is generally considered the most elementary mistake in the military textbook. He has the distinction of being the only Mongol general who was never defeated in battle. But both he and Genghis singularly underestimated the sheer tenacity of the Jin – ‘this truncated state in possession of astonishing resilience and determination’. When the Jin concentrated on the Song instead of the Mongols this was thought consummate folly, but they not only held the Mongols in stalemate – Muqali was never able to land a knockout blow – but repelled the Song and eventually compelled them to sue for peace. The high talent of Muqali is clear from the way he fought successfully in terrain not suited to Mongol horses, in regions rife with disease and even in boats and on rivers – a form of warfare to which the Mongols were not at all accustomed.

As to whether he was the greatest of Genghis Khan’s generals, this is more doubtful. One may perhaps concede that Muqali certainly achieved the most during Genghis’s reign, though many would still rate Jebe higher. Sceptics say that Muqali won all his victories against the demoralised and second-rate Jin, that he never defeated the best contemporary military opposition worldwide, as did Jebe, and even more so, Subedei. Genghis always possessed what Napoleon considered the key to success – luck, and never more so than in his marshals. At least three of them – Muqali, Jebe and Subedei – were military geniuses who eclipsed anything that the lieutenants of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Napoleon were able to achieve.

The death of Muqali gave new heart to the Jin and many others who had chafed under his dominance. The Tangut took no further part in the war, while in Korea a nationalist movement slew the Mongol commissar and his staff and declared independence. More seriously, the Jin ended their war with the Song. Hsuan Tsung died on 24 January 1224 and was succeeded by Ai-Tsung, who saw the folly of simultaneous war with the Mongols and the Song; the latter, as well as being masters of Shandong, were by now beginning to make serious inroads into southern Hebei. They had already acted treacherously for, as soon as Muqali went west in 1222, they struck west and took Tung Ping, adding all of western Shandong and part of eastern Hebei to their conquests.


Alongside the titanic Mongol efforts in China and Iran, Ogodei finally brought the troublesome Koreans to heel. It will be remembered that when Muqali died in 1223, Korea used the occasion to try to throw off the Mongol yoke. Busy with other, more important, concerns, Genghis paid little attention to events on the far side of the Yalu. Not even the murder of his envoys in 1224 – officially by bandits, who however were really Korean troops in disguise – stirred him to send a fresh expedition. Simultaneously, the revolt in Manchuria by Pu-hsien Wan-nu was allowed to dribble on until 1233.

Korea was not able to take full advantage of Genghis’s distraction elsewhere, for in 1223, the very year of Muqali’s death, its coasts began to be ravaged by large-scale raids from Japanese freebooters, who had been inactive for the previous hundred years. The devastation wrought by these pirates severely taxed the power of the Korean state and led it in turn to be distracted from the Mongol problem. However, on Ogodei’s accession he ordered a full conquest of Korea, with a large army sent to the peninsula under the general Sartaq (not to be confused with the more famous Sartaq, son of Batu).

In 1231 the Mongols swept into Korea, laying waste the land mercilessly, killing all males over the age of ten, and distributing the women and children as slaves among the soldiers; their onslaught caused further trouble for the Korean elite by triggering a slave rebellion. The Koreans were used to the Mongols’ deadly archery but were taken aback by the new weapons since perfected, including a new kind of flame-thrower in which fat was used to make the belched flame rage inextinguishably. The reign of terror was spread from Pyongyang to Kaesong. King Gojong of Korea fled to the island of Ganghwa west of Seoul and remained there for the next thirty years. Meanwhile huge reparation payments were agreed to persuade the Mongols to withdraw: the tribute included a vast amount of gold, silver and pearls, otter pelts, 20,000 horses and hostages as surety for future good behaviour by the Koreans. The Mongols then trekked back across the Yalu into Manchuria to deal with the rebels there, leaving behind governors and political commissars to make sure Ogodei’s writ ran. But Sartaq suddenly died, and this seems to have encouraged a revival of the resistance movement. Guerrilla bands arose, the Mongol officials in post were killed, and a ferocious anti-Mongol propaganda campaign was set in motion by Buddhist monks. Further instability was caused by the annual withdrawal of the small Mongol army of occupation, on which the commissars could theoretically call for help, for the winter hunt in Manchuria.

Angered by the inability of his subordinates to subjugate Korea properly, at the great quriltai of 1235 Ogodei announced a new expedition to pacify Korea once and for all. A large army was prepared, under the command of the Tangut general Baghatur, with the Korean traitor Hong Bok-won as his second-in-command; they were instructed to destroy all vestiges of opposition but not to waste time or resources on a seaborne assault on the island of Ganghwa. The Mongols crossed the Yalu and rolled up the Koreans in a devastating campaign in spring 1236 which took them south of the Han River via Anju and Kaeju.

The Koreans switched to guerrilla warfare, but in response the Mongols instituted full-scale genocide. Every time the country seemed finally tamed, there would be a fresh guerrilla outbreak, triggering a fresh Mongol atrocity in response. Finally, from his eyrie on Ganghwa king Gojong decided he could bear the sufferings of his people no more. In 1238 he signed a binding truce and sent a team of negotiators to Ogodei’s new capital at Karakorum to agree a permanent treaty. Although the Mongols demanded his personal presence at Karakorum he refused, but satisfied face and Mongol honour by sending all his closest relatives as hostages.

Peace came finally in 1241, but the fearful Gojong spent the rest of his life on his island. Nonetheless, in Korea the Mongols gained useful experience of amphibious operations, which they would later use in their conquest of the Song. When Gojong died in 1259 after a reign of some 46 years, they moved in on the island and demolished all walls and fortifications. Korea was then annexed by Qubilai Khan, though the Koryo dynasty limped on till 1392.





Khwarezmid Empire (1190–1220), on the eve of the Mongol conquests

After overcoming some difficulties at first, Genghis Khan mercilessly defeated and conquered the well-protected cities of neighboring empires. By 1209, the dreaded Genghis Khan was acknowledged by the Tangut emperor as the reigning lord of this region. Genghis Khan continued to annihilate the various dynasties until these empires were under his domain. Less than 10 years later, by 1218, the Mongol Empire was extensive and spread from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Genghis Khan worked to unite his power with neighboring empires and sent communication to the Khwarizm Empire in Afghanistan, conveying his message that he was the sovereign ruler of these lands. As such, he presented an amicable letter of friendship and in accordance requested the Khwarizm ruler to accept this declaration of Mongolian supremacy. The letter was accompanied with treasures and vast wealth, including such riches as gold, silver, silk, furs, and a flock of 500 camels. The caravan never reached the shah and instead was seized by an overly greedy border commander who was overcome with the prospect of all the wealth and fortune in the caravan. The commander killed all the convoy members save one, a camel boy who escaped unnoticed and returned to Genghis Khan to tell him of the incident. Furious, Genghis Khan dispatched a messenger party to the shah and ordered him to immediately agree to the previously delineated terms, bow to the Mongolian army, and deliver the border commander for punishment. The overly confident Shah naively refused such a declamation, and as further insult he killed the sole Muslim messenger and sent the other Mongol couriers back to Genghis Khan with shaved beards. This offense might have stifled any other potential invader, but the act was too insulting to Genghis Khan. Whether or not he intended to destroy the empire before the gesture of amity, the Shah’s response sealed the kingdom’s fate. Ruthlessly and unfalteringly, the Mongol ruler unleashed more than 200,000 Mongol soldiers into Afghanistan, crippling cities such as Herat, Balkh, Ghazni, and Bamiyan and slaughtering every man, woman, and child along the way.

The Mongols conquered and destroyed the Khwarizm Empire from 1219 to 1221, and afterward Genghis Khan divided the army into two separate forces. He led his army on a forceful storm across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, destroying the region as punishment for the shah’s insulting actions. His other military force, led by his two top generals, Jebe and Subutai, marched their soldiers through Russia and the Caucasus. For the most part, the campaign was not to ruthlessly kill and destroy, but rather to subdue those in these lands by pillaging settlements and forcing the inhabitants to recognize Genghis Khan as the only universal ruler of the world. After several years of adding more territories to the empire, including Persia, the once-divided forces united again in Mongolia in 1225. Genghis Khan was callous in his avenging defeat of these lands, and historical records describe vast fields filled with the skeletal remains of slain enemies and slaughtered horse carcasses scattered among the bodies on the battlefield. The stories of the Mongols’ method of conquest were extremely terrifying, for once the army entered the city, bodies and blood filled the streets as punishment for refusing to bow down to the Mongol ruler. When provoked, angered, or extremely insulted, Genghis Khan was brutal in his methods, and in one such instance he poured molten hot silver into the eyes and ears of his enemy as retribution for a previous insult. The legend of these malicious methods caused many shahs to tremble in fear of the Mongol army. Understandably, once this fear was instilled in a man’s heart, it was hard to find the courage to fight such savage warriors. For those that would not submit to the Mongol army, the Mongols’ ruthless mission was for the most part a simple instruction from Genghis Khan: slay the men, rape the women, and enslave the children.

Genghis Khan instilled advanced military disciplines to his army, including such concepts as psychological warfare, communication intelligence, and advanced mobility tactics that encouraged combat on horseback. The Mongols were highly skilled and unrivaled riders, learning to ride horses beginning at the very young age of three. As a magnificent illustration of the Mongols’ equestrian dexterity and control of the three horses with which the rider traveled, the rider was skillful enough to jump from his fatigued horse to a fresh steed in the midst of combat while still being able to continue firing arrows at the enemy. This ability granted the Mongols a significant advantage over their less-equestrian-knowledgeable adversaries and even presented a deceptive impression of the Mongols having more riders than originally estimated on the battlefield. Genghis Khan organized an extremely efficient army composed of strict discipline, tremendous loyalty, and remarkable adeptness. The Mongol army was thus an intense military force that was the most feared and ruthless power to enter the battlefield. By using their highly developed skills in military techniques of surprise, ambush maneuvers, and extreme mobility, the Mongols were able to defeat enemy armies with swift vengeance and merciless punishment. While these shocking actions may be regarded as the acts of menial and inferior savages, the Mongols were any- thing but inferior in intellect.

As further evidence of his military genius, Genghis Khan used supply routes to create multiple communication stations, known as yams, throughout the Mongol Empire that worked to gather and quickly disseminate communication intelligence. The Yam communication network was an ingenious invention, as this system revolutionized and greatly increased the spread of communication and the ability to relay military intelligence throughout the Mongolian Empire. The yam network was specifically designed for the Mongolian messengers, who often covered great distances of nearly 200 kilometers over one or two days, and these messengers arrived at relays stations along the route for food, water, and spare horses. Genghis Khan’s desire to understand and defeat his enemy may be considered passionate to the point of being fanatical, and as a result his extensive spy network was unrivaled.

As demonstrated by the Mongols’ ability to quickly subdue enemies, the conquering Mongol army was keenly adept at learning the strategies and techniques of the defeated empires. In the Mongols’ desire to learn the methods of defeated opponents, they spared only those with certain skills from death, such as engineers and architects. If these skilled opponents agreed to live as slaves to the Mongolian Empire, they would be useful for the expertise they provided as it related to war. As a result of this strategy, the most significant contribution came from the Chinese engineers who taught the Mongols how to strike and defeat walled cities. Of the few enemy soldiers that acknowledged Genghis Khan as the one universal ruler, these soldiers were included as part of the Mongol army. Not only did this technique expand the army, but it also gave the Mongols the advantage of learning new military techniques to use against other enemy forces. Hence, the Mongolian Empire grew not just in domain but also in intellect as the army continued to pillage and devour other empires while learning their secrets along the way.

The Mongols were one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history, composed of mainly nomadic inhabitants from all regions. Keenly aware of the cultural differences of his empire, Genghis Khan was supportive of the various religions in the empire as long as they did not challenge his rule. As a further testament to the strength of the army, he refused to divide his troops into different ethnic sects. Since he recognized that this would be a weakness and could segregate his army, Genghis Khan believed in supporting a sense of unity and loyalty among the conquered tribes through the integration of all individuals throughout the army despite their cultural differences. Hence, the Mongolian army would fight as a force of one unified people composed of multiple ethnicities rather than as divided units of smaller clans based on religious, tribal, and ethnic backgrounds. Of course, despite the resistance or disagreement, discipline was strictly enforced and included severe punishment for those who tried to oppose his policy.

Genghis Khan imposed a revolutionary concept on the Mongol army by basing his military on the Asian decimal system. The army was divided into units, the most basic of which was composed of 10 men known as an arban. In this regard, each man was assigned to his arban for life, and it was for- bidden under any circumstance, whether religious, cultural, ethnic, or simply dislike of his other members, to leave and join another group. The leader of the arban then reported to the leader of the jagun, the next highest unit composed of 100 soldiers. The remaining units included the mingghan (1,000 men) and tumen (10,000 men). Both units employed the title of noyan for the leader, which indicated a form of respect as a military commander, but noyan was not considered a military rank. To further the seriousness of the strict regime of the army, it was a grave insult and disgrace if a solider chose to abandon his arban. As punishment the entire arban would be executed for this treason. If all 10 men of the arban deserted, then the entire jagun would be executed. The leaders of the tumen were regarded as Mongol nobility, and the title Khagan (Great Khan) was the designated term for the leader of 10 tumens, which was reserved for Genghis Khan himself.

As was the typical terrain and climate of Afghanistan, the Mongol warriors were accustomed to the extreme weather conditions. Interestingly, the Mongols preferred to travel during the winter months in order to better navigate across rivers. Further, these hardened nomads were used to traveling great distances in little time. The Mongols often traveled without much difficulty, seeing as they were accustomed to these conditions as part of their nomadic lifestyle. Despite working under these harsh circumstances, the Mongols were exceptionally skilled at siege warfare. Such military methods included the diversion of rivers and tributaries to towns and cities so as to weaken the opponent’s defenses. In addition, the army would often take enemy prisoners and force them to march in front of the army as a shield when engaging in combat with other enemy forces. By far the most devastating practice—and arguably the most favored technique by the Mongols—was to simulate retreat and feign escape from the battlefield. Once the enemy army was lured into a faux victory, the pursuit of the seemingly retreating Mongols would break up the enemy army into smaller sections, and the Mongols would skillfully lure them into an ambush. As is often the case in history, Genghis Khan was blessed with a cadre of extremely gifted generals who were exceptionally skilled for the time they lived. In having such an elite general force as the tumen commanders, their keenness for military maneuvers allowed Genghis Khan and the Mongols to excel and crush his opponents.

After a conquest, the Mongol army would plunder the villages, and the valuables stolen after such defeats were the only payment the soldiers received. Those who resisted were killed. The massacre totals in the region of Afghanistan are particularly startling in Herat, Nishapur, and Samarkand. In one legendary tale of the Mongols’ fierceness, an Afghan woman was captured and cleverly tried to beg for her life by arguing that she had swallowed a pearl and that it would be wise not to kill her with the precious treasure in her belly. Swiftly, without hesitation, and while she was still breathing, her stomach was sliced open as the soldier rummaged through her entrails for the tiny orb. On hearing the account, Genghis Khan instructed the soldiers to search all bodies in the same manner, and each inhabitant was turned inside out so that their bowels could be searched for other concealed treasures.

The Warrior State: The Kamakura Period (1185–1333)


Second Mongol Invasion of Japan

In 1185 Minamoto no Yoritomo was the most powerful figure in the land. However, he neither sought the throne for himself or his descendants, nor tried to destroy it. Instead, he sought from the court legitimisation of his power through the title seii tai-shōgun (‘barbarian-subduing great general’), generally abbreviated to shōgun. This was granted to him in 1192.

The particular nature of the relationship between legitimacy (formal authority) and actual power in Japan is an ongoing feature of the nation’s history and society. Typically, a high authority does not wield a similarly high degree of actual power, but instead confers legitimacy – often in the form of some title, and often under pressure – on those who do hold actual power and claim to use it in the name of that higher authority. The fact that the higher authority is the guarantor of the power-holder’s legitimacy gives the higher authority too a certain guarantee of protection. The recipient of legitimacy may in turn confer legitimacy on those below them, and so on. It is in one sense a diffusion of responsibility, and in another a hierarchical ordering of authority. Yoritomo provides an especially clear example of the process.

Mainly because of this need for legitimacy – but also partly because it has long been a practice in Japan to maintain some degree of continuity with the past amidst change – his government was a mixture of old and new. It became known as the bakufu (tent headquarters), a term used of the headquarters of commanders in the field, and in theory was merely the military arm of the imperial central government. The old central institutions were left largely intact, though weakened. Old titles were retained, though often given a new meaning. Kyūto still remained the official capital, and the court stayed on there.

Recent research has suggested that the court retained a greater vitality than previously believed, especially with regard to bureaucratic matters, and that religious institutions also played a significant role in the political world. In that sense, rather than simple warrior rule such as characterised the succeeding Muromachi period, it was perhaps more a case of cooperative rule during the Kamakura period.

Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that in practice the real power – or more exactly the greatest real power – of government was now with the bakufu (shōgunate). It was based not in Kyūto but in Kamakura in the Kant region. This was Yoritomo’s traditional support-base, and he was moreover suspicious of the intrigues and undesirable influences in Kyūto. He preferred to keep himself a safe distance from the court.

What was also new was that the core of the government was now a single lord-vassal group, spread rather thinly throughout the nation. Yoritomo rewarded his loyal vassals with estates and offices such as jitū(steward) and shugo (protector or constable). They administered the provinces under their charge on the basis of local custom and military house laws, rather than the centrally imposed legal codes of the previous ritsuryū system. They also collected dues for the bakufu, and were entitled to retain a portion of the produce of the land for themselves. Through this system Yoritomo exercised a relatively direct control over much of Japan, and also further eroded the revenue of the noble court families and central government.

It was a feudal system, and in that regard Japan shared common ground with the medieval western world. However, feudalism in Japan was distinctive in that it operated through the traditional central civil administration. The lord-vassal relationship was also far more personal than in the west, where the contractual type of relationship was more common. In Japan it was of a paternalistic and almost familial nature, and some of the terms for ‘lord’ and ‘vassal’ used ‘parent’ (oya) and ‘child’ (ko) respectively. At the same time, and rather paradoxically, family bonds do not seem to have counted for much in the warrior’s world, and so it is perhaps more accurate to see this personalisation simply as an expression of dislike for the abstract. The strength of the family was to be greatly exaggerated by later propaganda.

Personal loyalty was a major factor in Yoritomo’s control over his own men. He may not have had a particularly endearing personality, but he nevertheless seems to have had a strong personal charisma that drew men to him. However, reliance on personal loyalty as a means of control is not very successful. It is inconsistent, hard to institutionalise, and fades with time.

Partly because he realised this, and partly because he was highly suspicious by nature, Yoritomo was ever alert to any remote suggestion that his power might be challenged. This led him to suspect the worst even of close friends and family, and to take decisive steps against them. His treatment of his younger half-brother Yoshitsune is a good example. Fuelled by jealousy over Yoshitsune’s popularity and widely acknowledged military prowess, and suspecting him of plotting, Yoritomo gave orders for Yoshitsune’s assassination. Finally, after four years as a fugitive, in 1189 Yoshitsune was surrounded by Yoritomo’s forces and killed himself, along with his wife and infant children. He was to become immortalised in Japanese literature and legend as the archetypical tragic hero.

For good measure those who hunted Yoshitsune down were themselves attacked and killed by Yoritomo shortly afterwards. More of Yoritomo’s own relatives and associates were also ‘terminally eliminated’ as potential threats.

Stating the obvious, Yoritomo’s elimination of relatives may not have been in the best interests of the family. When he was killed in 1199 by a fall from his horse – not in battle, but in rather suspicious circumstances – there was no really suitable Minamoto successor. He left two sons, Yoriie (1182–1204) and Sanetomo (1192–1219), and each nominally became shōgun. However, neither of them was strong enough or mature enough to achieve real control in the chaos of murder and intrigue that followed Yoritomo’s death.

It was no time or place for the faint-hearted or those swayed by sentimental concerns such as family ties. Both Yoriie and Sanetomo were controlled and eventually murdered by their own family. Behind many of the intrigues was their mother, Yoritomo’s widow Hūjū Masako (1157–1225). In effect, she controlled the government, and became popularly known as the ‘nun-shōgun’ (ama shōgun, a reference to her having taking nun’s vows on Yoritomo’s death).

One of the devices used by Masako was the institution of a shgunal regent. This reduced the position of shōgun to a nominal one, with manipulable court nobles generally being appointed as shōgun and real control being exercised by the Hūjū.

The Hūjū shōgunal regents became particularly dominant after 1221, when they survived a challenge to their power from the retired emperor Go-Toba (1180–1239, r.1183–98). Go-Toba had memories of the Genpei War when he had been installed as an infant emperor after Antoku’s death, and had long opposed the Minamoto and Hūjū. Following his unsuccessful challenge the shōgunate based a shōgunal deputy in the capital to help keep a check on the court. Go-Toba himself was banished to remote Oki Island, off present-day Shimane Prefecture, and was eventually to die there. He is yet another well-known tragic figure of Japanese history.

The political and military power wielded by Masako raises the often asked question of whether there were female warriors. There were indeed a number of them, right through until the late 1860s, though in some cases it is difficult to separate legend from fact. They were certainly not as numerous as, for example, Celtic female warriors. Among the better-known female warriors, one of Yoritomo’s relatives, his cousin Yoshinaka (1154–84, whom Yoritomo had killed), had a concubine Tomoe Gozen (ca.1160–1247) who is credited with taking a number of heads during the Genpei War, and in modern history Nakano Takako (1847–68) was killed fighting in the Boshin War of 1868–69. However, female warriors were not formally recognised as samurai. The term applied to them was onna bugeisha, meaning literally ‘women skilled in martial arts’.

Though clearly much was happening at home, two of the most important events during the period of Hūjū supremacy were of external origin. These were the attempted Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281. These foreign threats probably helped the Hūjū to retain power nationally, for, together with periods of national alert before and after, they created a state of national emergency that over-rode any internal dissent for some thirty years.

When Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai (1215–94) came to power as Emperor of Great Mongolia in 1260, the Mongol Empire already covered Korea, northern China, and indeed much of Eurasia. Kublai’s next main target was southern China, the base of the Sung (Song) forces. However, he also turned his attention to Japan. In 1268 he sent a letter to the ‘King of Japan’ threatening invasion if the Japanese did not recognise Mongol overlordship and agree to submit tribute to him. The Japanese authorities – court and shōgunate alike – ignored this and subsequent letters, but nevertheless the shōgunate put the coast of northwestern KyŌshŌ, where any attack was expected to occur, on military alert.

The first attack came in November 1274. As expected, it came in north-west KyŌshŌ. On this occasion Kublai sent about 900 vessels from Korea carrying some 40,000 men. They landed at Hakata, and the invaders immediately forced the Japanese defenders inland. However, instead of pressing on, that night the Mongol forces returned to their ships. Shortly afterwards these suffered extensive damage, along with considerable loss of life of those on board, when a violent storm blew up. The invaders withdrew to Korea, their numbers reduced by a third.

The Japanese were alarmed at their own inferiority in terms of weaponry and cavalry tactics, and strengthened their preparations for an expected second attack.

The Mongol invasion force of June 1281, which again landed at Hakata, was much larger. It comprised no fewer than 4,400 warships and 140,000 men. By this stage Kublai had secured victory over the Sung in 1279, becoming founder of a new dynasty of rulers of China. He had also suffered the insult of having his envoys to Japan beheaded in 1275 and again in 1279. This time he was serious.

But, large as the Mongol forces were, they were met with staunch resistance and were unable to secure a real foothold. Reinforcements arrived a few weeks later from southern China, but, just as the invaders were planning a massive combined assault, another storm blew up in the form of a typhoon and destroyed most of their fleet. Once again they were forced to withdraw, this time with more than half their men lost.

The two Mongol defeats were partly due to the spirited Japanese resistance and partly to their reliance on recently subjugated Chinese and Korean troops, who had little commitment to the Mongol cause. However, the two storms also had an undeniable and very major influence on the outcome. The storm winds became known as shinpŌ or kamikaze – literally ‘divine wind’, reflecting a Japanese belief that Japan was the Land of the Gods and had been protected by them. The same term was later to be used in the Second World War of the suicide pilots who gave their life in the same cause of protecting the nation.

The recent discovery and recovery of numerous sunken vessels off the island of Takashima, where most of the typhoon damage occurred during the major assault of 1281 under the leadership of a general as opposed to an admiral (Kublai himself took no physical part in either of the actual assaults), reveals that any ‘divine hand’ that may have intervened was definitely assisted by human hands. At that time, Chinese vessels were considered the best in the world, but it is quite clear that poor workmanship, such as looseness in the mast-step (the hole in the central beam that holds the main mast steady), was in the case of many vessels a contributing factor to their inability to ride out a storm. This may have been a result of deliberate sabotage on the part of the Chinese and Korean boat-builders, or it may have been a case of Kublai wanting to attack as soon as possible and putting too much pressure on the workers, ending up with vessels built in haste and by apprentices rather than master shipwrights. The latter scenario, of Kublai’s needless urgency, is strongly supported by the use of so many keel-less river boats, totally unsuited to oceanic conditions and easily capsized in a storm. In short, Kublai and his advisers were no sailors, and botched the job. With the loss at sea of an estimated 70,000 men it still ranks as the world’s greatest-ever single nautical tragedy, and it is surely one of the classic cases of folly in human history. Kublai did not give up his intention to invade Japan, and planned a number of subsequent attacks. On each occasion he was diverted by instability elsewhere in his empire. The Japanese knew of his intent and maintained an alert at least till his death in 1294, after which Mongol interest in Japan appears to have waned.

Japan’s victories and survival resulted from a mixture of spirited fighting on their part, poor organisation and morale on the enemy’s part, and sheer good fortune. No doubt the same applies to most military victories regardless of time and place, but in Japan’s case they were particularly favoured by fortune and circumstance.

The external threats may have helped prevent internal fighting, but they also contributed to mounting discontent towards the Hūjū shōgunate. The financial cost of the defence and long-term state of military alert was very great, and severely depleted the shōgunate’s finances. It was unable to pay promised rewards to warrior families, or even basic compensation for their contribution to the nation’s defence. This was particularly galling to those families who felt that they themselves, rather than the Hūjū, had won the victory. Further discontent was caused by the Hūjū decision to instal shōgunal deputies in KyŌshŌ and to concentrate even more posts into their own hands.

Despite the financial problems of the shōgunate and many warrior families, the nation’s economic situation as a whole improved during the period, partly as a result of the relative peace and stability that prevailed under the jit-shugo system. The shen (estates) became more productive, though they were still far from fully efficient. Increased productivity helped the prosperity of maritime traders who distributed rice and other goods around the nation. Guilds also became stronger.

The life of the common people during the Kamakura era was marked by the emergence of new Japanese forms of Buddhism. The most distinctive characteristic of these was their appeal to the people at large, as opposed to Heian-period Buddhism which had generally been esoteric and confined to the ruling class. The Jūdo (Pure Land) Sect, founded by the priest Hūnen (1133–1212), believed salvation could be attained by chanting the name of Amida Buddha. The Jūdo Shin (True Pure Land) Sect, founded by Hūnen’s disciple Shinran (1173–1263), simplified this further to just one sincere invocation of Amida’s name. The type of Buddhism promoted by Nichiren (1222–82) was similarly simple, but focused on the Lotus Sutra rather than Amida.

Not all forms of Buddhism established in the Kamakura period were popular in their appeal, however. Zen Buddhism, with its stress on austerity and self-discipline, appealed more to warriors than to commoners of the day. Elements of Zen had been present in Japan for some centuries, but it took particular root following two trips to China by the priest Eisai (1141–1215), and presently developed into a number of sects.

Dissatisfaction towards the Hūjū shgunal regents came to a head under the unusually assertive emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339). Acceding to the throne in 1318, he was determined to re-establish direct imperial rule.46 He was inspired in this by the former emperor Go-Toba, who had shown a similar resolve – albeit unsuccessfully – a hundred years earlier.

Go-Daigo tried twice to challenge the shōgunate, in 1324 and 1331, but failed on both occasions. Like Go-Toba before him, he was banished to the Oki Islands. However, unlike Go-Toba, Go-Daigo soon managed to escape, and succeeded in mustering considerable support in the western part of HonshŌ.

In 1333 the Kamakura shōgunate sent one of its ablest generals, Ashikaga Takauji (1305–58) to deal with the situation. Takauji, the young head of a branch of the Minamoto family, was an opportunist. Realising that he and Go-Daigo had considerable military might between them, he turned traitor to the shōgunate and, declaring his support for Go-Daigo, attacked the shōgunal offices in Kyūto. Within weeks another powerful young general of Minamoto descent, Nitta Yoshisada (1301–38), also rebelled against the shōgunate and destroyed its base at Kamakura.

A new era was nigh.

The End of Mongol Rule in China



The basic dilemma of Mongol rule in China—the Mongols’ inability to achieve a durable identification with Chinese civilian institutions and to modify the military and colonialist character of their rule—became more apparent under Kublai’s successors and reached a maximum under Togon-temür, the last Yuan ruler. Togon-temür was not unfriendly toward Chinese civilization, but this could not alter the contempt of many leading Mongols for Chinese civilian institutions. For centuries China had known clique factionalism at court, but this was mostly fought with political means; Mongol factionalism usually resorted to military power. Militarization gradually spread from the Mongol ruling class into Chinese society, and not a few dissatisfied Chinese leaders established regional power based on local soldiery. The central administration headed by a weak emperor proved incapable of preserving its supremacy.

Thus, the military character of Mongol rule paved the way for the success of Chinese rebels, some of whom came from the upper class, while others were messianic sectarians who found followers among the exploited peasantry. The Mongol court and the provincial administrations could still rely on a number of faithful officials and soldiers, and so the progress of the rebel movement in the 1350s and 1360s remained slow. But the rebel armies who had chosen what is now Nanjing as their base took Dadu in 1368; the Mongol emperor fled, followed by the remnants of his overthrown government.

The Mongols remained a strong potential enemy of China for the next century, and the Genghis Khan clan in Mongolia continued to regard itself as the legitimate ruler of China. The century of Mongol rule had some undesirable effects on the government of China: imperial absolutism and a certain brutalization of authoritarian rule, inherited from the Yuan, were features of the succeeding Ming government. Yet, Mongol rule lifted some of the traditional ideological and political constraints on Chinese society. The Confucian hierarchical order was not rigidly enforced as it had been under the Tang and Song, and the Mongols thereby facilitated the upward mobility of some social classes, such as the merchants, and encouraged extensive growth of popular culture, which had been traditionally downgraded by the literati.
Ineptitude on the throne, bureaucratic factionalism at court, rivalries among Mongol generals, and ineffective supervision and coordination of provincial and local administration had gravely weakened the Yuan government by the 1340s. And in 1351 disastrous flooding of the Huang and Huai river basins aroused hundreds of thousands of long oppressed Chinese peasants into open rebellion in northern Anhui, southern Henan, and northern Hubei provinces. Rebel movements, capitalizing on the breakdown of Yuan control, spread rapidly and widely, especially throughout central China. By the mid-1360s, large regional states had been created that openly flouted Yuan authority: Song in the Huai basin, under the nominal leadership of a mixed Manichaean-Buddhist secret-society leader named Han Lin’er; Han in the central Yangtze valley, under a onetime fisherman named Chen Youliang; Xia in Sichuan, under an erstwhile general of the rebel Han regime named Ming Yuzhen; and Wu in the rich Yangtze delta area, under a former Grand Canal boatman named Zhang Shicheng. A onetime salt trader and smuggler named Fang Guozhen had simultaneously established an autonomous coastal satrapy in Zhejiang. While Yuan chieftains contended with one another for dominance at the capital, Dadu (present-day Beijing), and in the North China Plain, these rebel states to the south wrangled for survival and supremacy. Out of this turmoil emerged a new native dynasty called Ming (1368–1644).