Mother Nature vs the Mongol hordes: Did climate change keep Genghis Khan at bay and the Southern Song dynasty in power?
Climate change in Central China may have helped the Southern Song dynasty keep Genghis Khan and his successors at bay, study finds
Central and other parts of China were among the hottest in Asia during the 13th century, which coincided with the rise and rapid expansion of the Mongol Empire, according to a new study by Chinese scientists.
The unusually warm climate in the central, eastern and southern parts of what now stands as modern China would have helped spawn vast rice paddies, creating a food surplus to feed Chinese troops and lay a solid foundation for the development of the local economy and technology, pundits say.
According to the new report, the temperatures in these areas were hot enough to match those seen in the same area in the post-industrial period.
As such, the study provides new evidence that the climate, like the Great Wall in North China, may have been a crucial factor in helping stave of the Mongol hordes.
But the climate would have mostly benefited the Southern Song dynasty, which defied Genghis Khan and his successors for decades - until the dynasty crumbled due to a crippling recession and festering corruption.
The dynasty ruled what now ranks as the central, southern and eastern parts of China. Before it became undone, its rich economy accounted for over 60 per cent of global GDP at the time. Meanwhile, its navy shows the first recorded use of gunpowder and compasses.
The new study was conducted by an international team led by Shi Feng with the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
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Collaborators from Europe, Japan, Nepal and Pakistan worked with Shi’s team to analyse several hundred sets of data produced by researchers around the world comparing summertime temperatures in Asia over the last millennium.
A key finding showed “a distinct warm period over most of China in the 13th century, especially in central and eastern China,” they reported in their paper in the journal Climate Change.
Dong Guanghui, a professor of historical geography at Lanzhou University in West China, said that ancient societies were much more sensitive to climate change due to the impact of this on agricultural and economic activities. Dong was not involved in the latest research.
The Mongol Empire lasted for most of the 13th century. Genghis Khan (1162-1227) mounted numerous attacks to expand his land and army and the Mongol hordes, warlords and cavalry rapidly expanded westwards, making it as far as the area now claimed by Poland around 1259.
But their southward expansion into Chinese territories is known to have been much slower: Despite launching attacks in this direction first, it took another four decades until they finally conquered “China” in 1279.
Some Chinese historians have argued that the country was ultimately defeated more by its own systemic problems - economic and bureaucratic - than the tenacity of the savage Mongol horsemen.
Finances were certainly a problem in the later years of the Southern Song dynasty, which printed enough money to cause inflation to spiral out of control.
Moreover, its government was ruled by some of the most infamously corrupt officials in Chinese history, notably Chancellor Qing Hui.
Having an abundance of fresh crops may have helped keep them in power longer, according to some historians.
The latest study has emerged as the most comprehensive look at warming events in the region over the last 1,000 years. It drew on data from a range of sources, including lake sediment, tree populations in Mongolia and ancient records.
The “reconstructed temperatures for central, eastern and southern China ... were significantly higher than for other regions, and were comparable with those of the 20th century,” the authors said.
Earlier studies have suggested that Khan’s rise was partly fueled by the warm and wet climate that helped his native grasslands flourish - feeding herds of grazing animals as well as his army.
Now it seems the Chinese dynasty may also have benefited from Mother Nature’s beneficence, and that the warming effect in this area would have been comparatively greater.
However, the impact of the prevailing climate should not be overstated, according to some scientists.
“There have been many warm periods in history, but there has only been one Genghis Khan,” said Dong.
“History is full of accidents. The climate doesn’t decide everything.”