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THE SILK ROAD SERIES: WELCOME TO MARCO POLO'S WORLD

In the last week of March 2019, Xi Jinping, the President of China, visited Italy and concluded a deal with the President of Italy for a project in Venice.  Italy became the first of the G7 countries to join China's Bricks and Road Initiative. The move caused rumbles throughout the European Union. Xi wishes to resurrect the Old Sik Road and form a New Silk Road, the rebirth of China on the global scene. Venice, the city-state, was the culmination of the Old Silk Road.

 

But the New Silk Road is different from the Old Silk Road. As a scholar of the Mongol Empire, I had pieced together the story of the trade routes and the banking system that created the modern age. The Old Silk Road was more liberal and tolerant than the New Silk Road. Here is the story.

 

It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the career of the military genius known as The Conqueror, Chinggis Khan. But this was where the modern period begins. This was the end of the Muslim domination of the financial and banking systems of the world, and the beginning of the rise of the West.  The rise of science in the West during the Renaissance led to the beginning of Western dominance of the sea. The world shifted from the caravan routes to ocean-going trade. The Age of Exploration had begun. The rise of the West had begun. 

 

Some contemporary historians say that the globe has entered into a new era of Great Power rivalry. The tale continued in the colonial era as the Great Game through the nineteenth and twentieth century. The rivalry continued during the Cold War. The story of the Old Silk Road trade is the first chapter in global history. The modern period is the second chapter.

 

One man, Chinggis Khan, was the political master of the largest land-based empire in history. Under the  rule, trade between China and Europe prospered for the first time since antiquity. For the first time, Europeans could enter the lucrative China  trade. The European merchant princes, such as the Medicis, built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance and the rebirth of science in Europe.

The empire of the Supreme Khan founded forged the first link between China and Rome since antiquity, the old Silk Road, when the Coliseum was covered in Chinese silk during a rainstorm. 

 

 

 

The Mongol Empire brought all of Asia, the Middle East and Russia under the sway of one ruler--he ended the wars and established the peace and opened the trade across the Silk Road.

 

His rule ushered in a century of peace, prosperity and religious toleration, the first period of global history. Yet the story has been lost to the West. 

 

Call it the Pax Mongolica. Global trade commenced. Fortunes were made. Cultures intermingled. Cultures influenced each other across the world.

 

Why did the Supreme Khan build roads? He valued intelligence from the far corners of his empire. To facilitate the flow of information, he invented a pony express system. This was a system of post stations twenty-five miles apart. there the men designated as his Near and Far Arrows, his messenger service, could rest, eat and acquire fresh mounts. The imperial roads allowed them to go about the Supreme Khan's business unimpeded, delivering the latest intelligence and information. They wore insignia stating that they were on the emperor's business. The roads were safe from robbers and brigands.

 

China had the biggest and most advanced economy in the world. Europe was in the infancy of its development, and lagged behind, still recovering from the invasion of its own barbarians, the Huns and Visigoths, and the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

Marco Polo began his epic journey to China (he remained at the court of Khubilai Khan for seventeen years). from the port of Venice, the great trading port on the Adriatic. Young Marco found opportunity in China. As a European, he had no interest in the factions at court. He was Khubilai Khan's spy, because he spoke the various languages of the court, learned on his long journey to the East.

 

Khubilai Khan did the Chinese the favor of uniting North and South for the first time in 400 years. Young Marco had had experience in the Salt Monopoly of Venice and was employed by Khubilai Khan as a government official in the Salt Monopoly of Southern China, a big source of revenue for the Yuan imperial government. 

 

The story of Marco Polo and Khubilai Khan is one of the world's great stories in inter-cultural relations and it begins with the opening of the roads across the world, for although the world thinks of Chinggis Khan as a warrior, he was a promoter of free trade. The story of the Mongol Empire is one of the greatest stories in global history. Yet the West does not know much about it for a simple reason. 

The Mongols had not had writing for more than twenty years at the time of the conquests and they had no knowledge of the writing of history. The tale was told by his enemies, the greatest civilizations of their time, China and Persia, and even medieval Russia, and many others besides. The tale was told in so many languages that it would take a lifetime to master them. That is why the story I tell in my series is a scoop, even after seven centuries.

I had no idea of the scale of the story when I began my work. I took the word of a master. One of the greatest sinologists of the twentieth century told his students that if we wanted to make a reputation for ourselves, this was the period to work in. Nothing had been done. He wasn't kidding when he said nothing had been done. The field was a vast expanse of open prairie.

The story became my white whale, my Everest, my lost city. I wanted to know what happened to the empire after The Conqueror died? How could it be that this man changed history and no one knew anything about it? The Chinese histories were silent, because they considered the period a Dark Age. The Mongols conquered the world and no one knew anything about them.

 

It took years of detective work for the story to emerge. The scale was vast. Finally. I got a scoop, after 700 years. It took me twenty years, but I found out what happened and I wrote it down in the Silk Road Series.

Why should the reader care? The world we live in is in the second period of global history, but we have been in a period of global history before and this is it. This era forms a distant mirror. It tells us how we got to where we are. Although Xi Jinping wishes to draw on the past for the revival of his Chinese Dream, his dream could not be more different from the empire of the Silk Road in the time of Marco Polo.

 

The President of China, Xi Jinping, has announced his signature project of the New Silk Road. He calls it the Bridges and Road Initiative or the BRI. My story is backstory to today's headlines. 

 

This era is the first period of global history. 

 

Chinggis Khan's Code of Laws, the Yasak, the law of the empire, was more lenient than the Tang Code of China. The Celestial Kingdom was supposed to be the fount of civilization and Chinggis Khan was supposed to be a barbarian. Unlettered, unwashed, someone who lived outside the Great Wall and the civilizing benefits of the Middle Kingdom. The Mongol Code was unique. It enshrined the principal of religious toleration, the first in the world.

 

As long as the people of the conquered regions paid their taxes and served in the military, they were free to practice their religions. There were many peoples and many religious within the empire, and all of them got along, under pain of death.

 

The anthropolgist Jack Weatherford has written that Chinggis Khan's code of religious toleration was the model for the religious freedom clause in the American Bill of Rights.

 

The man known as The Conqueror gave the Muslims of the Silk Road fair treatment, freedom to practice their religion. When Muslims were being persecuted by an old enemy of his, he sent an army in to chastise a prince who was closing the bazaars and the mosques along the Silk Road in the Far West, in what is now Xinjiang. The man was executed and his head mounted on a spike and paraded through the oasis towns of the Silk Road. The Muslims welcomed the army of Chinggis Khan as liberators and cheered them in the streets.

  

Today on the New Silk Road,  the Chinese state has created a totalitarian surveillance state and is pursing a hardline policy of re-educating the Muslims of the region away from their religion. There is an international protest against the ethnic cleansing of the Uighurs, citizens of Turkish descent who inhabit Xinjiang. The Chinese government claims the detention of the Uighurs is merely for re-education.

The PRC justifies its policy based on its fear of separatism, extremism and terrorism. But is this treatment of minorities developed from the Chinese tradition? The policies on ethnic identity are part of the theory on national identity inherited from the Soviet Union. They are not derived from classical Chinese philosophy, which is humanist.

 

In the medieval world, the Silk Road was a network of roads that went from China through Central Asia, through Russia, where they ended in the ports of the Black Sea. The method of transport was the camel caravan, led by Muslim traders. Goods were shipped from Soldaia, where European merchants had trading emporia. The destination port was Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. From Constantinople, cargo was loaded into vessels that took the goods of the East, from foodstuffs to luxury goods, to the ports of Europe and also North Africa.

 

Once the goods arrived at the trading emporia of the Black Sea, Europeans, including the Polo Brothers, Marco Polo's father and uncle, moved the goods on ships from the port of Constantinople to Europe.

 

The manufacture of porcelain, the highly fired ceramic that was almost translucent, was also a state secret. The Middle East paid astronomical prices for porcelain. All they had was faience, earthenware. Europe eventually went mad for porcelain. The export of tea was big business.

 

The traffic was heavier going in the direction from the East to the West. The West demanded the goods of the East more than the other way around. 

 

Shimmering and luminescent,silk was unlike any other fabric in the world. It was woven into many types of cloth, from broadcloth to gossamer gauze. It was the most gorgeous fabric of the medieval world, Silk was the fabric that marked the elite from the commoner, with its manufacture a state secret and the export of silkworms a crime punishable by death.

 

The Muslim merchants who dominated the trade that reached across the world had an elaborate system of credit to finance their trips between East Asia and the Middle East. There were regular stops on the Silk Road, in the most important cities of Central Asia, Samarkand and Bukhara, were caravanserais where the merchants and their camels laden with valuable goods, could rest, gossip, eat and continue on their way. 

 

In Bukhara, when a war between two khans stopped all the caravan traffic of Central Asia, Marco Polo lived for three years. A man with a gift for languages, he soon learned the languages of the Mongol court, including Mongolian, Turkish and Persian. He had a gift. He was able to speak to Khubilai Khan in his own language.

On the Silk Road there was the mingling of cultures and languages, the transport of ideas, religion, medicine, artistic styles and techniques. Here was a Buddhist civilization, as the recent show at the Getty Museum illustrated, the site known as Dunhuang, the first entry of Buddhism into China.

One can see the cross-fertilization in the artwork. There was a mixing of artistic styles seen in the sculpture in the Ghandaran style imported from Afghanistan with the folds in the robes of Buddhas carrying the Hellenic influence into Buddhist sculpture of the conquests of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan.

Here musical styles mingled, as well as the cuisines and languages of the Silk Road. One can hear this music today in Yo-yo Ma's Silk Road Orchestra.

Manuscripts came in, with the influence of religion from Persia, and also Buddhism from India. Meanwhile trade flourished in the oasis towns to the north and the south of the Tarim Basin.


In digging out this story, I became a literary Indiana Jones, working with the tools of the scholar, research and writing. The heirs and successors of The Conqueror were not always the best of men,. There were great warriors among them, and also weak men who made terrible rulers, alcoholics and pleasure-seeking hedomists, who would rather be among the mistresses of the harem than attending affairs of state.

 

Among them is a woman, the Princess Sorghagtani, the most renowned woman of her age, a diplomat who forged the alliance that put her sons on the throne. One of her sons was Khubilai KHan, and she was responsible for his being on the throne.  Until his mother convinced him to become a serious man, he was a young aristocrat enjoying the hunting life in the capital. Later he was to become the founder of a Chinese dynasty, through her intercession in his education.

Marco Polo, a merchant of Venice, rose from his status as a commoner and became an official at the court of Khubilai Khan. Khubilai Khan was an enlightened ruler who employed the European as a spy. Polo was offered nobility and a royal marriage, a status that the mere son of a merchant could never have attained in Europe.

 

Marco chose to return to his native Venice where he was captured on a warship and thrown into jail. There he wrote the most famous travel book of all time. He must have missed Khubilai KHan, for the people of his own city called him a liar, saying that what he recorded in his travel book could not have been true. He was called Marco Milione, Marco Millions, Marco the Liar. He recorded that he had not written one-tenth of what he saw in China. 

The Mongol Empire was as much about trade as it was about war. Europe wanted spices, textiles, porcelains and tea. This was Marco Polo's world.

 

Not Chinese

 

As to the New Silk Road, on the official PRC website of the Bridge and Road Initiative, a posted article contains the announcement of the discovery of a Ming map. The map is significant because it illustrates the many cities along the Silk Road. The implication is that the global trade on the Old Silk Road was Ming, that is Han Chinese, in origin.

 

The Ming was a Chinese dynasty ruling from 1368 to 1644. The Mongol era in China came first, from the conquest in 1215 to the fall of Yuan in 1279. The Ming  was the successor to the Mongol Dynasty but it did not have a strong enough center to maintain the vast conquests of the Mongol period. Under the Ming, the territory of the Chinese empire contracted, as the maps in the historical atlas of China plainly show.

 

In other words, the Chinese are lying about the past and attributing the Silk Road to the Han Chinese dynsty. The big expansion of the Silk Road was under the Mongol Empire and the Mongols were not Chinese. It is the way of authoritarian governments to create history to suit the political expediency of the moment.

 

It was the task of every Chinese dynasty to write the history of the dynasty that preceded it. The Chinese have been doing this since the beginning of the dynastic system, some two thousand years ago.

 

The history of the Mongol Empire states the obvious. This Yuan was not a Chinese dynasty. In fact, the Confucian elite that ran China for two millennia were averse to trade and to the merchant class, a bias noted throughout Chinese history.

 

No matter how detailed the Ming map that is featured on the Bridge and Road Initiative's website, the system of trade developed under the Mongols. The Confucians were not promoters of trade. So listen up, dear reader. History matters, and true stories are often better than anything one could make up. 

 

As to the piecing together of the tale: The record was left in so many languages that it would take a lifetime to master them. Important works had come into English after World War II. For the first time, a scholar was not restricted to one specialty. One person could tell the whole tale.

There was a dark side to the Mongol conquests. Medieval warfare was brutal, whether conducted by Chinggis Khan or by Richard the Lion-hearted and Saladin in Jerusalem.

 

The idea among Western historians was that vast numbers of men, the barbarian hordes, slaughtered their way across the world. This is not true. The hallmark of the Mongol Army was quality, not quantity. The slaughter was the way in which medieval warfare was conducted, by the armies of Christianity and Islam as well as the Mongol Empire.

As a basis for comparison: The armies of both Christian kings and Muslim shahs during the Crusades in the Middle East were every bit as bloody as the Mongol campaigns across the world. It is said that during the battle for Jerusalem between Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin, the great Kurdish warriors, that the streets of Jerusalem ran knee-deep in blood.

Was Chinggis Khan a monster? Did he deserve his reputation for bloodthirstines? His warfare had an elementary if brutal logic, all its own. The Supreme Khan never left an enemy population behind the advancing front lines of his army. This was for tactical reasons, not for the pleasure of killing.

 

He was not educated, but he admired educated men. For purposes of governing, he recruited and employed a Chinese chancellor, Yeh-lu Chu-tsai, a former official in the Grand Secretariat of the defeated Chinese dynasty. Yeh-lu had worked in the administration of a Chinese emperor. This skill was required by the new master of China, for he barely comprehended civilization. He loved the free open life of the steppes. The Mongols knew nothing of governing a civilized state.

 

Yeh-lu was a Confucian in his public life, as Confucianism was regarded as the best philosophy for the ordering of the state. He was a Buddhist in his private life, as Buddhism was the best philosophy for the ordering of the mind. He was opposed to killing. He influenced the worst of Mongol military practices. He did not appeal to Chinggis Khan's compassion, but to his desire for profit. Trade over war.

 

Yeh-lu argued that the Supreme Khan had more to gain from taxing the population than from killing it. Yeh-lu was a physician and he argued that he had to stem the epidemics of battlefield diseases that ravaged the army. He wanted the Mongol soldiers to bathe. Though it was against the beliefs of shamanism, by the time of the Campaign in the Muslim lands, Yeh-lu got the troops to bathe.

The numbers of troops were inflated and so was the devastation. This is not to make light of the devastationm but the Persian historians record that thirty years after the conquest of Bukhara, Marco Polo passed through Samarkand and Bukhara and the market towns were thriving and doing business. Marco Polo spent two years in a caravanserai in the city because two khans were fighting and commercial traffic was stalled. Even in the space of thirty years, Bukhara was a thriving center of intellectual life and of commerce. Still other places never recovered from the warfare.

The inventor of modern warfare, Chinggis Khan introduced the element of psychology into his warfare. He ordered his generals to deliver Orders of Submission. "Submit and be spared. Resist and be plunged into humiliation."

He terrorized those in the direct line of his army. He wanted to be spared the difficulty of waging war. He promised good treatment to those who surrendered. He offered command under Mongol generals to Chinese generals who submitted during the Campaign in North China. He used human shields in his conquest of walled cities.

Think of it. China and Russia were both conquered by the Mongols. Both Russia and China were ashamed of their conquest by barbarians. Their historians were silent. 

The Big Silence was a matter of national pride. China was the country that accepted tribute from its neighbors. The ruling class, the educated men, the Confucian scholar-gentlemen believed in their own superiority. What did it say about Chinese civilization if it was conquered by the "uncivilized"? The barbarians were great horsemen, but they were unwashed and unlettered.

Until the invention of the Google search engine, just acquiring the books was a heroic undertaking. This was not like writing about Henry VIII, where there were twenty books of history to consult. On this subject, there was The Big Silence. 

The Mongol victory in Russia, and then in Hungary and Poland, shattered the foundations of European society. The fall of the Roman Empire was not so distant in time that it was not remembered, and the fall had come at the onslaught of previous barbarians, the Huns and Visigoths. 

The Mongol generals were poised to conquer Europe, for Europe was divided, its armies no match for the greatest fighting machine of the time. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were engaged in a power struggle with each other, and could not mount a common defense. The Mongol Army would have done beaten the armies of Europe as they beat the armies of the crowned heads of Eastern Europe. Only the death of Genghis Khan's successor, the Supreme Khan Ogodei saved Europe.

We are living in a new era of global history. If China is declaring the New Silk Road, why not take a look back?

 

This is Shakespeare in Asia, a story about a family and a period, a saga. Audiences love a saga. The stories follow the highs and lows, the destinies both tragic and glorious, of human beings against a backdrop of wealth, power and skulduggery in high places. This is a portrait of the human condition written across a vast canvas. As the twenty-first century has been called the Asian Century, it is a story of our time.

The Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa was the first to note the similarity between the Shakespeare histories and Asian history. He famously created a version of Macbeth called "Throne of Blood" and of King Lear, called "Ran."

Kurosawa used as his backdrop the Japanese civil war for control of the country. My Silk Road Series is the Chinese part of the story.

When Khubilai Khan unified China and ascended the Dragon Throne in the thirteenth century, he was determined to rule as a true Chinese emperor, a true Son of Heaven.

He became obsessed with Japan submitting and becoming a vassal, as they had done during China's Golden Age, the Tang Dynasty. The Tang was multicultural and international and Khubilai Khan had taken it as a model for his reign. He was a man born to the horse. His honor and his pride were at stake. He was rebuffed.

The boy shogun Tokimune, the military ruler of Japan, would have none of it. He rebuked the Mongol envoys and sent them home, across the sea. He said that he had submitted as a vassal to the Song Emperor, the Han Chinese emperor who ruled below the Yangzi, in Southern China.

The demand was an act of hubris, and it led to a bad end. Khubilai Khan's life changed drastically. He began in glory, but became the King Lear of Asia.

 

How do we know all of this? Khubilai Khan had befriended and then hired a European, Marco Polo. Young Marco spoke the languages of the court and could speak to the Khan in his own language. He had no stake in court politics. This is the greatest cross-cultural friendship in global history. Welcome to Marco Polo's world.

You might not have known anything about it previously, but what you get with the Mongol Empire are wars and romance, victories and defeats. Read how the great khans came to power and about their private lives. You too may become obsessed. I have uncovered their stories for modern times. Get on your pony and ride.