When people talk about Genghis Khan and the Mongols, the discussion typically focuses on the Mongols reputation as a ragtag band of nomadic warriors raping and pillaging across Asia and Europe. The reputation of the Mongols as ferocious killers have spurred countless stories of terror and destruction. Unfortunately, most of these stories are fictious. Interestingly, the Mongols were an amazing propaganda machine and created most of these false narratives to create fear and terror to ensure enemies surrendered before a fight was needed.
Beyond the Mongols legendary success as fearsome warriors, they were also amazing economic innovators. Genghis Khan was the masterful strategist and tactician, who created the Mongol empire. Khubilai Khan, his grandson, was the society builder. Khubilai Khan’s innovations have such direct influence on modern society it is amazing that it happened almost 1,000 years ago.
In Jack Weatherford’s excellent book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he shows in detail the innovations that Khubilai Khan implemented across the globe. Yes, that was Khan’s strength, not just great ideas, but the ability to implement them across multiple cultures and ethnic groups. It is mind-blowing how many “modern” innovations Khan developed in the 1200s.
Khan’s strength was in organizing large number of people across the globe. Some of the societal innovations Khan enacted were the parole system, laws concerning bankruptcy, and even the first credit card. He also attempted to develop the first single alphabet and the use of a global paper currency.
The Mongols moved from military conquerors to the world’s first commercial powerhouse. They setup up trading routes across the world levering new technologies and goods. They were the first to understand the efficiencies of water transportation (compared to overland) and became great merchants. Moving goods quicker and for less money than their counterparts.
They would take common items from one country, introduce them into other countries, and develop a new market for the new commodity. For example, the Mongols expanded the use of playing cards around the globe as a compact, light, easily transported game compared to more cumbersome games like chess or other board games. The demand for playing cards out-performed the Mongols very successful market of scripture. Yes, the Mongols were making huge profits selling various religious items across the globe. Whatever the markets needed, they would provide.
In terms of education, Khan strove to wipe out illiteracy and expand the arts. He created some of the first public schools and worked hard to promote universal education across all classes. Khan was a strong supporter of the arts, and provided large resources to encourage writers and actors to practice their craft. His patronage of the arts was critical to expand learning and improve overall society.
The Mongols incorporated medical experts from all regions to expand knowledge and create new markets. They sold Chinese pharmaceuticals in the Middle East and brought Muslim surgeons to Asia. They quickly dominated the textile markets and replaced parchment with paper for better record keeping. In addition, the Mongols developed some of the first calendar systems. They tracked and documented moon phases, lunar and solar eclipses, and developed the twelve-year animal cycle. They also setup the first observatories. With all the science and research the Mongols encouraged, they setup key mathematic centers, and introduced the use of zero, negative numbers, and algebra in China.
The Lean Startup Model
In this time of lean business models. The Mongols were the first to build → measure → learn. When their naval fleets were destroyed during the invasion of Japan, they realized the weakness in their ship designs, regrouped, and came back with better designs. The Mongols continually experimented in both military and societal issues. They constantly focused on learning and improving.
Khan also ensured a mixture of ethnicities in all layers of government. He knew that having a variety of perspectives, cultures, and religions created a powerful government. Unlike today with the current wave of nationalism, Khan knew the importance of looking outside your ethnic group to ensure long-term growth. Bringing experts from all areas of the empire ensured the Mongols would continue to dominate both militarily and economically.
One of the lasting and most successful innovations for the Mongols was agriculture. They introduced various types of crops, trees, plants, and animals across the globe. For example, when Persia experienced problems due to erosion and poor soils, the Mongols imported various seeds from China to improve production in the Middle East. They also brought crops from the Middle East to Asia. For example, the Mongols planted huge orchards of lemon trees in China. The Mongols continually brought new goods from one area to another, expanding their reach and opening up new markets for various goods.
As Weatherford notes, they searched for what worked best, and when they found it, they spread it to other countries. They truly created the first universal culture and world system. Weatherford showed how the European Renaissance was driven by the Mongols, not the Greeks or Romans. Pickup his book and take a trip back in time. The innovations militarily and economically are staggering. Weatherford’s detailed research and simple writing style make this a great read.