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The Mongols tolerance vs Christian intolerance or Marco Polo


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I have watched the first three episodes of Marco Polo on Netflix. I find it fascinating.

I've also been working answering phones for a few days and there's downtime, so I've been reading up on Kublai Khan and his grandfather Genghis Khan.

Even though I love history and love to read and have widely read of my own accord about history and culture, I have not read much on Chinese or Mongolian or even much Asian. This is like being catapulted headfirst right into it, and wow is this fascinating.

One thing I read about about both Khans is they not only did they tolerate other belief systems, they also sought to learn from them.

As an FJ'er, the first reaction is to compare this Christianity, which has so much the opposite attitude. I have not found Christianity as a whole to be embracing towards other belief, perhaps one reason is that I'm comparing rulers to a religious system.

And it's not just Christianity. I would not say that many middle east cultures/religions are tolerant, to me the religion and culture as rather mushed together as the same thing. I wonder if other people perceive that about America and Christianity?

I just wonder why. Why the insularity? Why the thought that there seems to be nothing to learn from other religious beliefs. Allowing and tolerating and actually learning from different beliefs certainly did not hinder the Khan.

The fun things I mull over in my free time.

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Interesting thoughts.

Ghengis Khan did have religious tolerance, although that still doesn't make him a good guy. Some estimate that he was responsible for 40 million deaths.

Allowing conquered peoples to retain their religion wasn't all that uncommon. The Assyrian Empire used population transfer to reduce the threat posed by conquered nations, but also brought in old priests to teach the new inhabitants how to worship the local gods. That was the origin of the Samaritans. More recently, the British allowed the French Catholics of New France to keep their language and religion after defeating them in the Seven Years' War, which prevented them from supporting the Americans during the American Revolution.

One modern religion that's an interesting mish-mash is Baha'i. They revere Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus and Mohammed, plus their own modern prophet who basically taught that all of humanity was united and all the major world religions revealed something of God's will.

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One of my degrees is in Chinese language and literature, and since my emphasis was on historical linguistic and texts, I am incredibly familiar with Chinese history. I've also had the wonderful opportunity to study and live in China for a time, at which time I was able to take classes on Chinese history in China (it's a different narrative than you get in the West, but it's important here). My emphasis was never on the Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty, however, I am familiar with this period in history.

And I disagree strongly.

Edit: Should probably clarify here that most non-Native religious groups in China are generally seen as "outsider" populations, no matter their ethnic hertiage. So Christianity, Judaism, Islam, certain sects of Buddhism, and then of course non-Han ethnic groups such as the Hui, Jurchen, Hakka, Uyghur, Tibetans, etc. are also seen as outsiders.

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty operated by systematically oppressing the native Chinese (Han) population and culture. This is NOT always true of non-Han dynasties to such a degree, as many sought to work with, incorporate, and blend their regimes with the existing culture (see especially the Manchu Qing. Other examples are the Jurchen Jin, to some extent the Khitan Liao and possibly the Tang(debated)). The Han have an incredible history of bureaucracy, learning, and civil service. Generally speaking, when you see a non-Han (frequently Steppe) people take power, they capitalize on this. Han culture is respected, Han people are given opportunities to rise in government and society, and in turn, the resident population agrees to respect a non-Han ruling class.

It's complicated, and I'm making it sound more perfect than it was. The Manchu Qing did discriminate against the Han and forced them to wear the pigtail queue, for example. When you have a small ethnic class ruling over a larger, different ethnicity, there will always be issues.

However, the Mongol Yuan were a whole different story. They fundamentally mistrusted the Han and Han culture. They did NOT allow Han to advance in government or society. They ruled oppressively and often by military force. They systematically tried to disenfranchise and marginalize the Han population, and the Han in turn never viewed them as anything more than oppressive conquerors (again, great counterexample is the Manchu Qing who DID earn the support of the Han).

Support of outside ideas and foreigners was actually another way that the court oppressed the Han people. They were SUPER open to outsiders BECAUSE they were completely opposed to supporting anything to do with the native culture of the region.

By advocating, sponsoring, and promoting complete outsiders, they were further insulting the Han (Oh, you've studied your whole life to be a civil servant? Yeah, I could promote you, but see this foreigner that just showed up with NO credentials? We're going to support HIM because HE is not Han and therefore better than YOU). They didn't want to use ANY Han ideas, and the more outside things they could support, the less internally grown ones they would be forced to use. Also, they needed allies and new technology DESPERATELY because the Han population hated them.

tl;dr: the Mongols in China were open to Outsiders and Outside ideas LARGELY because of their hatred for and desire to oppress the Chinese population. It's really not very admirable.

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Oh dang. I definitely did not read that! So there wasn't some noble idea behind it.

I am at work speed reading but I am going to re-read it again tonight. Both posts are excellent food for thought.

Thank you both for your comments, most interesting and enlightening. I appreciate it so much.

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thanks for your post, georgiana. i love history, but haven't delved very deep into asia. you make me want to read about it now. :) do you have any recommendations?

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Sure! I studied in in school, so the books I read are on the dry/academic side rather than the "well told story" side, but some of them are very accessible! I'll grab my faves when I get home. There's one art book that I REALLY recommend. It gives you a great overview of history and how the art of China tied into it.

The thing about Chinese history is that it is VAST. You have to start with an overview to get the big picture, but it doesn't get really good/fascinating until you delve into the particulars.

My general recommendations for tackling it without wanting to die:

1. Pick a dynasty or time period. They all have their own unique flavor/issues/society, so you don't necessarily need to go in order. Personally, I recommend the Tang as a good first dynasty (cosmopolitan society! women playing an active role! a rebellion by a Persian that almost ended the dynasty!), but my favorite dynasty is the Ming. The Southern Song is what you think about when you think about Chinese Culture like isolated women, footbinding, neo-Confucianism, that or the Qing, which is also a good first dynasty as it was the last. If you want to go in order....Xia, Shang (both mythical), Zhou (Ancient: bronze age), Qin-Han, Sui-Tang, Song, Ming, Qing, Republic, Mao. The Xia-Shang-Zhou are hard to get into. The Han is when the China we know today begins to form (though the Chinese will argue this).

2. Once you have your dynasty, read an overview of the time period. Wikipedia actually has pretty good summaries. This will give you a general view of the dynasty itself, which makes delving in easier.

3. Then read a more in-depth treatment of the dynasty. You'll probably find some people, places, or events that really catch your eye.

4. Read specific stuff on them!

My favorite specific categories: standardization of characters under Qin Shi-Huang, bird script (why write when you can DRAW BIRDS), Taoist immortality potions (this is probably poisonous, but eat it why not? ps gunpowder was discovered as an attempt at immortality potions. yes, the guy ate it, and yes, he died), The Four Beauties (esp. Yang GuiFei), An LuShan: the Persian who almost destroyed the Tang, the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming, the various Barbarian groups

I also like the literature, but that takes a WHOLE load of work to understand properly, even in translation. However, there are some primary source collections that are pretty good.

The best advice I can give you: don't treat Chinese history like it's some ethereal, exotic, all-knowing thing. Orientalism I think is the word. You know, Ancient Chinese Wisdom; teh Tao!; OMG the YiJing (I've READ both of those. They are...well, Confucius was cool). The Chinese were INCREDIBLE innovators. They have an INCREDIBLE history. But they are people. And sometimes the history is ridiculous, funny, and downright stupid (Let's eat gunpowder!). Just like history anywhere else. Feel free to be critical and laugh sometimes. Human beings, no matter what society they live in, do some silly things.

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