How did the Mongols so thoroughly beat once-mighty China?

I remember a book by Harold Lamb, about Temujin. If I was told correctly, Genghis Khan, once he unified his mongolians, invaded China. He won.

My question is I never figured out how they conquered much of Modern China, so quietly.

For one, didn’t the Chinese have advanced military technology? The mongols shouldn’t have had any advantage there.

Did the Chinese have a very advanced school of strategy, Sun-Tzu and all that, and were known to be expert uses of strategy?

Didn’t the Chinese have much greater reserves of manpower? Advantages of defense? Walled Cities?

I know the mongols were insanely good horsemen, and could ride a great speed with minimal supply line, but even so, how did they pull it off? Even if China was divided, even a medium-sized Chinese state, with its civilization, riches, (presumably) walled cities, should have put up one hell of a fight.

Well, it took them 60 years, but basically, they allied with other powers, defeated the armies of the various Chinese states on the battlefield, and sieged the cities, eventually using Persian siege engineers. But the war with the Song did last 40 years.

The Mongolian soldiers were good at killing people.

And, whatever the current nationalistic current in China would want you to believe, at that time China was hardly the unified country that it is today, being composed instead of many territories not always in peace with each other.

The Chinese did, but it was quickly added to the Mongols’ arsenal as they moved into China. They were quite fond of new technology and utilized any and all of it as they came across it.

Knowing strategy and tactics doesn’t make one necessarily all that good at it.

Speed of movement allows organized movements and it allows you to attack weak spots faster.

It’s also often said that the greatest weapon in war is information. The mongols had a very organized transit system for message runners.

Civilization, riches and walled cities do not necessarily equate to military strength. In fact, civilization and riches can often sap that strength as the citizenry grow used to luxury and feel disinclined to endure the rigors of military life, using subject peoples for mercenaries instead. This is exactly what happened to the later Roman Empire, which fell to the barbarian hordes in spite of its civilization, etc.

The Mongols didn’t simply conquer all of China with a bunch of horsemen. They made alliances with Chinese states, played enemies off each other, and conquered the Chinese politically at LEAST as much as militarily.

The Stirrup. The Stirrup allowed the Mongols to ride a horse and fire at the same time. Unlike Chariots that needed smooth ground, horseback riders could ride almost anywhere. Plus, a chariot needed multiple people and horses to funciton, and couldn’t maneuver as fast or could you aim so well while a chariot was in motion.

Once they defeated one Chinese state, they used their technology (the Mongols didn’t really have good seize weapons) to conquer other states. As one Chinese state fell after another, the Mongols had resource advantages.

Remember too that this was a feudal society. The real power was local landlords and not in a national army. As the Mongols advanced, many land owners simply switched allegiance to the Mongols and provided men and equipment. To these local land owners, it really didn’t make that much difference if the Emperor was Chinese or Mongol as long as you did what you wanted. The Mongols wanted tribute, but so did the Chinese emperor. Six of one kind, half a dozen of another.

In some ways the Mongols were responsible for the united Russian and Chinese state. Before the Mongols, as others have noted the Chinese and Russians were more loose association of states. After banning together and losing to the Mongols, Ghengis Khan was very effective in organizig these loose “tribes” into bands of government.

The Mongols were very effective, because they were ruthless. They would hold entire villages of women and children hostage and burn the entire places to the ground. Mongols were very mobile and this helped them. They would essentially use technology that they didn’t have but got from one conquered people and adapt that warfare technique to mobile operations.

The Mongols moved very swiftly and a favourite technique was to surround a village and starve it out, and after the villagers finally surrendered they would slaughter every inhabitant.

The Mongols most successful technique was to simply refuse to fight any battle they couldn’t win. Many times the Mongols came upon an ememy they knew they couldn’t beat the would simply withdraw.

The Arabs were particularly good at beating off Mongol attacks as they too were nomads and had similar forms of warfare. Ambush, attack, pick off the easy things, retreat, then before the enemy had a chance to regain strength, they’d, ambush, attack, pick off the weakend and retreat again.

But as others have said, the biggest advantage the Mongols had were they were a product of their time. Once the Mongols had established a bloodthirsty reputation, they would go up to a city, demand 10% of its weath and its surrender. Most cities complied.

Why? Because there wasn’t many places with nationalism back then.

You have to look at it this way, suppose you were a serf or a peasant, you paid almost all your income to a local government, who probably couldn’t protect you anyway. If the Mongols came in they took the same amount of taxes from you, so what difference did it make who ruled you. And you might as well be on the winning side.

The Mongols also had a lot of religious toleration, something the Christian and Muslims didn’t have. So it made little different to the peasant if he was ruled by a Mongol or a Christian Ruler or a Muslim Ruler.

John Keegan’s A History of Warfare talks about this in detail. The main points have been made already but I’ll sum up:

  • The Mongols had superior mobility on their horses/ponies (Keegan attributes this to their evolution on the Asian steppes).
  • Superior firepower with their short bows.
  • Superior tactics - Keegan says the Mongols were masters at feints and false retreats.
  1. Shock And Awe
  2. they stressed plunder over pacification and rebuilding infrastructure. They weren’t interested in staying like the Romans or the European colonial powers.

Okay, please forgive the following pedantry…

Just to be clear, while the above is true in the sense that it provided a more stable platform, mass horse-archery seems to have long pre-dated the widespread use of stirrups.

Further the stirrup was quite old by then. Though the exact origins are disputed, the Chinese may have had it in wide use first ( by the 5th century A.D. ). The Chinese were certainly equipped with them in the Mongol period, so it shouldn’t be taken as an example of Mongol technological superiority.

I’m going to have to largely disagree. China proper was indeed split between two rival states at the time of the Mongol conquest ( one itself the result of a previous foreign invasion ). But it had been united before, would be again after the Mongol collapse and a common vision of China pre-dated the Mongols.

Russia was far more divided, but mostly as a result of the fission of a previously unified state - Kievan Rus. The various contending princes of these states were all essentially related.

Now the steppe regions and trans-Volga regions had never been incorporated firmly into that Russia, but I’d argue the Golden Horde didn’t achieve that either. They didn’t try. They ruled from the steppes, raided and imposed tribute on the the forest/marsh-belt and otherwise maintained a rather de-centralized organization, even by Mongol standards.

It was really Muscovy that first joined the two effectively ( and rather late by historical standards ).

I think this needs to be qualified just a bit. To be clear the Arabs from Arabia were never known as horse-archers. Indeed early Arab armies were heavily infantry-based. Higher proportions of cavalry were gradually adopted from western forces, but the wide-scale use of horse-archery was an “innovation” ( obviously its antecedents in the Middle East generally were ancient ) imported by the mature Abbasid Caliphate via Turkish mercenaries and slaves. Thereafter Turkish horse-archers dominated ME armies until late in the gunpowder era.

The army that stopped the skeleton force of Mongols at Ayn Jalut was largely Turkic in character from a state ruled by Turks ( ruling a vast Arab underclass in Egypt and Syria ).