Genghis Khan 元太祖 [1162 - 18 Aug 1227]
Portrait of Genghis Khan. Painted in the Qing dynasty. Ink and color on silk.
From Online Collection ➚ of Brooklyn Museum ➚, 2005, available under a Creative Commons license ➚.
Genghiz or Genghis Khan had a vision that propelled him to seek to bring all of humanity under one unified kingdom. At the time, the nomadic people of Mongolia were divided into many tribes with strong family loyalties. Genghiz's first great achievement was to unify the Mongols under himself as the one great Khan (or ruler) in 1206. Genghiz lived through hard times as a boy, after his father was murdered the family had to subsist on wild plants and the occasional mouse. For a while he is believed to have served as a mercernary in a Chinese army. Soon enough, under his leadership, the massed horde of Mongol warriors on horseback became an unstoppable force wherever they went. After five years he began an invasion of northern China with an army of 200,000. Northern China at this time was under the control of the Jin dynasty and the Western Xia kingdom. China's Great Wall had not been maintained and it proved little obstacle to his advance. The 150,000 strong Chinese army and formidable city wall defenses could not repulse his attacks for long. Two armies attacked and besieged Beijing (at that time called Zhongdu) in 1214-15 and the city was systematically looted and burnt to the ground.
His tactic for conquest was simple: ‘surrender or die’. If a city held out against him, then all the inhabitants were put to the sword. In some conquered kingdoms (such as the Western Xia) it is estimated that 98% of the population were killed. The Southern Song dynasty based at Hangzhou felt themselves safe beyond the natural defenses of mountains and rivers. Although invincible on open plains the Mongol horsemen could not so easily launch attacks over the steep mountains and the wide rivers of central and southern China. The defeat of their foes, the Jurchen (Jin), in northern China did not seem necessarily a bad thing to the Song people. Indeed the Mongol invasion could have given opportunity for the Song to retake some land in the north.
Meanwhile Genghiz's attention looked west to the Muslim kingdoms of Central Asia, which he then conquered. His vast empire stretched from Eastern Europe over most of Russia; Middle East and India. He could certainly claim that he ruled over most of the known world. Genghiz's death in 1227 while conquering the Western Xia kingdom (which covered present day Gansu and Shaanxi) gave the Southern Song a lengthy reprieve. Even Genghiz's death was bathed in blood, to keep his death a secret, during the long journey back to the Mongol capital of Karakorum anyone unfortunate enough to just see the funeral cortege was put to death. His son and then grandson relaxed the harshest of Genghiz's laws; so when Kaifeng fell in 1233 the lives of the millions of inhabitants were spared. In 1279 Kublai Khan, his grandson, conquered the Southern Empire and unified China. A lesson taken from these events was that a divided China could not effectively defend itself, the integrity of the nation's heartlands has been maintained from the Ming dynasty to the present day.