3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
End of the Beginning Land of the Shogun


Ch 6 - Koryo Under the Mongols

Expanding the Realm

Genghis Khan's son Ogodei became the Great Khan and led the conquest of the Jin Dynasty. The Mongol invasion of Koryo forced the government to flee to Kanghwa Island as the Mongols settled into their new role as occupiers. Koryo peasants resisted the Mongols, but with no help from the government their efforts failed. Mangu succeeded Ogodei as the Great Khan and his brother, Kublai, commanded his first military expedition into Song China.

Genghis Khan's armies spent forty years bonding the nomadic races of central Asia into a mighty nation. The generation of those in command when Genghis Khan died were men in their forties and fifties, capable strategists and leaders who from their earliest youth had known nothing but victorious conquests. Waiting in the wings, a third generation of men in their twenties and thirties burned with the passion to prove themselves worthy of their fathers. A forth generation of Mongol warriors was on the way. Genghis Khan's departure left a power vacuum in Asia and an atmosphere filled with suspense.

Yelu Zhucai busied himself in the Mongol capital at Karakorum consolidating the ruling seat of the Mongol Empire. He ordered a two year period of mourning, after which the tribes would assemble to elect a new Khakan. During this interlude, many Mongol princes grew quite accustomed to ruling their own little fiefdoms as independent sovereigns, unfettered by Genghis Khan's powerful dominance. The vast Mongol nation seemed to be on the verge of splitting into separate principalities. With Yelu Zhucai helping to smooth the way, the gathered Mongol tribes anointed Genghis Khan's son Ogodei as the new Khakan and once again bonded themselves under a single leader. Almost at once, Ogodei began to complete the three great tasks imposed upon him by his father:  the final subjugation of the Jin Empire in China, completion of the conquest of western Asia, and the subjugation of Europe. In the year 1230, armies of the Mongol nation again began a rampage throughout Asia.

During the four year Mongol campaign against the Jin Empire, the Chinese repeatedly pulled together whole armies, seemingly out of the ground. These hastily formed armies frequently held their own and even defeated the Mongols in battle. Nevertheless, the Chinese could do little to alter their ultimate fate. In strict accordance with his father's last orders, Genghis Khan's son Tolui led a Mongol army eastward through Song territory toward the southern Jin capital at Kaifeng and simultaneously attacked the city in force from two sides. The capital mounted a courageous defense that lasted nearly a year, but it eventually fell to the Mongols in 1232.

Prime Minister Yelu Zhucai persuaded General Subedei to spare the district's 2,000,000 inhabitants. The dampened furor of the Mongols had an interesting effect in the countryside. When news about the fate of Kaifeng reached the outlying provinces, the population seemed to recognize they had a chance of safety and simply ceased to resist. Within two years, the Mongols held firm control of northern China and the Jin Empire ceased to exist. The Mongols feasted and caroused in their capital at Karakorum to celebrate their victory over the Chin. As the celebrations closed, a new chapter opened in the history of East Asia.

The management of Genghis Khan's vast empire depended heavily on the Mongol ability to rule the many civilizations they conquered. Early in the empire's formative years, the Mongols had no idea how to effectively break into a walled city. Worse, once they got inside the gates they had no idea what to do with it. Prime Minister Yelu Zhucai understood the nature of the Mongol character very well and, while Ogodei focused his attention on military matters, the Khitan sage set out to organize the Mongol Empire. His efforts had far-reaching results. He restricted the powers of Mongol governors and military leaders in order to deprive them of any opportunity to plunder the people. With Ogodei's full support, he also commanded a strict separation of powers between civil and military affairs. Although Yelu Zhucai's action generated many enemies, he had little to fear from disgruntled Mongol leaders.

Many Asian cities were spared because Yelu Zhucai convinced Mongol governors and military leaders they could use cities to consolidate and expand their power, and as a source of future wealth. Since the Mongols lacked both the time and the knowledge to administer conquered cities, they employed many foreigners to help with the task. Genghis Khan believed that if enough Mongols were educated, they could eliminate the employment of foreigners in civil administration. He believed the kind of education needed to keep the empire together was compatible with nomadic life and that an educated pastoral society could be organized like his army. That proved impossible. As long as he still needed foreign administrators however, he never hesitated to use them.

Yelu Zhucai took on the challenge of molding the Mongol empire into an ordered state. Fully competent in the skills required to organize and manage so vast a domain, he instituted numerous economic reforms and changes in the ruling political structure of the Mongol government, creating an environment in which the conquerors and the conquered could live together peacefully. In doing so, he not only consolidated power in the realm, but his own power as prime minister. In time, the Chinese people began to breathe a bit easier, trade and industry revived, and China's peasants were again free to cultivate the land.

Anyone seeking mastery of China or hegemony in East Asia deemed it a matter of great importance to control Korea. Many Chinese dynasties and regimes, especially those with their principal political base or military power in northern China, considered the Korean peninsula a shield protecting their eastern flank and sought to control it or at least keep it within the Chinese orbit. Koryo's geographic position made it an important factor in the Mongol's expansion through Asia.

While Tolui's army assaulted Kaifeng in southern China in the autumn of 1231, another large Mongol army under the command of General Sartai entered the Korean peninsula. The well-organized and experienced campaigners crossed the Yalu River, overran the border town of Uiju, and invaded the northwestern provinces of Koryo under the feeble pretext of avenging the murder of a Mongol emissary near the Yalu River some six years earlier. Ch'oe U called up all available troops in the region and bravely marched his hastily organized and overmatched army north into the face of a far superior force. General Sartai's fast and mobile Mongol cavalry ran into stiff resistance from the Koryo infantry in major battles fought at Anju and Kusong.

The Mongol siege against the walled town of Kusong exemplified Koryo's heroic resistance. General Sartai brought the full array of his medieval assault weapons to bear against the city's defenses. While Mongol troops attempted to undermine the defensive walls by tunneling under them, formidable lines of catapults hurled large boulders and molten metal at the town. Special assault teams used siege towers and scaling ladders against the earthen walls and pushed flaming carts against the city's wooden gates. Perhaps the most grisly tactical weapon used at the siege of Kusong was the catapult-launched fire-bomb. The Mongols boiled down their captives and used liquified human fat to fuel a weapon which produced fires that were practically inextinguishable. Kusong's defenders refused to surrender and stubbornly held on for thirty terrifying days and nights. An old Mongol general, inspecting the ramparts during the siege, commented that, "...I have never seen [a city] undergo an attack like this which did not, in the end, submit." In the end Kusong remained in Koryo's hands.

General Sartai suffered only scattered defeats during his fast moving southward advance. Impatient with siege tactics and driven only by the stark logic of predation, Mongol cavalry bypassed pockets of resistance and soon captured the capital at Kaesong. Some of Sartai's horsemen reached as far south as Ch'ungju, where a slave army led by Chi Kwang-su halted their advance in a heroic battle fought to the last man. When the inevitability of events finally sank in, Ch'oe U and the Koryo government saw no other alternative open to them and reluctantly sued for peace. The tribute demanded under the terms of the peace agreement was immense, if not a bit absurd. The Mongols required 10,000 otter skins, 20,000 horses, 10,000 bolts of silk, clothing for 1,000,000 soldiers, and a large number of children and artisans who would become slaves.

General Sartai began withdrawing his main force to the north in the spring of 1232, leaving seventy-two Mongol administrative officials stationed in various cities in northwestern Koryo to ensure that Koryo kept his peace terms. In the sudden calm that followed years of hard campaigning, the Mongols settled into their new role as occupiers in Koryo. Koryo may have accepted a humiliating peace with the Mongols, but Ch'oe U resolved not to accept the Mongol occupation without resistance. Acting against the advice of King Kojong and many of his senior civil officials, in June 1232, Ch'oe U suddenly ordered the entire Koryo government to evacuate the capital at Kaesong.

In a move calculated to exploit the Mongol's singular weakness, a fear of the sea, Ch'oe U transplanted the entire Koryo government and the majority of Kaesong's population to Kanghwa Island, located near the Han River estuary north of Inchon. The government commandeered every available ship and barge to transport supplies and people from the mainland to this large island. The move occurred so quickly that King Kojong ended up being billeted in a local inn on the island. The government issued orders to the general populace to evacuate the countryside and take refuge in major cities near mountain citadels or flee to the thousands of nearby offshore islands.

Sitting little more than a mile from the mainland across the wide Salee River (Salt River), Kanghwa Island sat as a mighty defensive bastion. For added protection, numerous fortresses were constructed along the mainland side of the island, including a large double wall built across the ridges of Mt. Munsusan. Although the island's shoreline was easily visible from the mainland, for the Mongols it might as well have been on the other side of the Yellow Sea. They could do nothing to conquer Kanghwa Island. They could only glare at the island from the beach and yell to the Koryo defenders to come out.

Secure in their new haven, the ruling elite of Koryo continued their extravagant life of luxury little changed from their days in Kaesong. Kanghwa Island provided the Ch'oe house a fortress of resistance furnished as if they had moved all the palaces, mansions, temples, and polo fields of the capital intact onto the island. The Koryo government's lifeblood, grain taxes, were shipped directly to the island by sea, thereby preventing the Mongols from interrupting the flow of tax revenues.

The Koryo government and much of the aristocracy spent the summer months of 1232 engaged in a contest of wills with the land-locked Mongols. Koryo's peasants used more than just willpower. From mountain fortresses and refuges to Korea's numerous small coastal islands, Koryo's peasants took up arms and stiffly resisted the Mongol occupation. When the Mongols found themselves unable to break peasant strongholds directly, they resorted to familiar tactics used with such success against the Chinese;  they cut off the peasants' food supplies. Mongol raiders laid waste to the countryside, putting ripened grain fields to the torch and forcing even further hardships on the populace. When a mountain stronghold finally fell, the Mongols cruelly slaughtered its weakened and dispirited defenders.

The strength of this resistance infuriated General Sartai, who mounted a second major invasion of Koryo in December 1232. Led by a traitor from Pyongyang named Hong Pog-won, the Mongols quickly captured the depopulated capital at Kaesong and occupied the entire peninsula north of the Han River. During a particularly fierce battle at Ch'oin-song near modern Yongin, the Buddhist monk Kim Yun-hu got off a very lucky shot. The arrow from this skilled archer's bow struck General Sartai, who quickly died from the fatal strike. Thrown into confusion by the loss of their leader, the intensity of the Mongol attack quickly diminished and they eventually withdrew to the north.

In 1235, Ogodei Khan and his military war council conceived plans to continue Genghis Khan's dream of world conquest. Once set in motion, Ogodei's Mongol hordes triggered no less than four major wars across the Asian continent. The Song dynasty in south China, now the disillusioned former allies of Genghis Khan, became the first Mongol target for conquest. A second Mongol army rode westward into Persia and beyond to subjugate Asia Minor. A third army, built from the flower of Mongolian youth, eager for victory and the glory of battle, thundered west to conquer Europe under the banners of princes carrying the bloodline of Genghis Khan.

Koryo's continued stubborn resistance drew Ogodei Khan's attention to the Korean kingdom. He ordered a fourth Mongol army eastward to suppress the repeated and stubborn peasant uprisings breaking out in Koryo. The Mongols pushed as far south as the city of Kyongju and withdrew only after gaining the promise that Koryo would become a vassal state of the Mongol emperor, Ogodei Khan. The change in status brought a few years of relative peace, but Koryo's peasants were in no mood to remain at peace with the Mongol invaders and stubbornly continued to resist their presence on the peninsula.

The Koryo government reached for anything to bolster its resolve against the Mongols. The government, strengthened by its belief of the power of prayer to Buddha, offered up anxious prayers to the deities of heaven and earth. Turning to its trust in the power of Buddha, the government ordered a group of Buddhist monks to undertake a massive project. Beginning in 1237, the monks collected and studiously engraved anew the text of all Buddhist scriptures as a form of pious patriotism to secure Buddha's protection against the Mongols. Over a period of sixteen years, they labored to carve an immense collection of 86,600 individual wooden plates, representing the entire Tripitaka Koreana, originally produced some two hundred years earlier Buddhist Texts in Korea. Once finished, the Koryo Tripitaka became one of the great treasures of Buddhist culture and one of the greatest cultural legacies of the Koryo kingdom. Famed for its exquisite artistry, the collection remains to this day at the Haein-sa Monastery near Taegu.

After a two year reconnaisance in the West, General Subedei and Genghis Khan's grandson, Batu, led a force of 150,000 Mongol warriors out of Central Asia during the dead of winter in 1236, beginning a six year campaign to subjugate all of Russia and Eastern Europe. Born in a land where winter temperatures can reach -60°F, the Mongols were better acclimated to the rigors of winter than perhaps anyone else. They reached Russian territory a year later, during the coldest and darkest time of the year and defeated the Volga Bulgars. On December 21, 1237, they took their first Russian town at Riazan.

General Subedei swept through Russia, a land of numerous independent kingdoms ruled by Russian princes who were more often than not at war with each other. The Mongols eliminated all of Russia's principalities one by one, reaching the outskirts of Kiev in November 1240. On December 6, the Mongols laid siege to Kiev and reduced Russia's largest city to ashes with catapults, mangonels, poisoned arrows, and naphtha fire bombs. The Mongol occupation of European Russia, which lasted until 1480, put an end to internal warfare and led to the unification of Russia.

After splitting his army into three separate commands, General Subedei turned west and invaded Hungary and Poland. In the spring of 1241, at the Battle of the Sajo River near Pest, the Mongols fought with considerable success against several Hungarian armies, all of which were defeated. In the span of just a few weeks in April, the victorious Mongols decimated several large armies and killed over 200,000 of Europe's finest warriors, including the famed Teutonic knights.

While Koryo prayed to Buddha for relief from the Mongols, it could be said that Bacchus, the ancient Roman god of wine, answered their prayers. Years of hard drinking finally caught up with Ogodei Khan on December 11, 1241. Despite a promise to his brother to limit the number of cups of wine he drank each day, a promise he evaded by using unusually large cups, Ogodei Khan died of alcohol poisoning. His death, and the absence of an orderly system of succession, led to a leadership vacuum that spread confusion among the Mongols. Without a strong hand at the helm, the Mongol empire descended into a decade of near civil war. Ogodei's widow served the empire as regent for a period of five years, a time when political scheming and intrigue tore at the heart of the empire.

A hard-riding messenger reached General Subedei's command in February 1242 with news that Ogodei was dead. The European campaign came to a sudden end as the Mongols returned to their homeland to face a new political situation. Batu and his armies remained in Russia, where he soon established a capital at Sarai on the Volga River, the heart of a vast kingdom that became known as the "Golden Horde." The Golden Horde

Just two years after the passing of Ogodei, Genghis Khan's forever faithful servant and statesman Yelu Zhucai, died. The loss of this great man left a void in the Mongol Empire, a void that would never again be filled. Not long after the Yelu Zhucai's death, Genghis Khan's greatest military leader, Subedei, returned to his homeland east of Lake Baikal, greatly disappointed over the spiritual decay of the empire. Three years later, in 1246, the seventy-year-old warrior died. The loss of these two men removed the two great intellects chiefly responsible for continuing the principles of leadership laid down by Genghis Khan. That same year, the Mongols filled the long vacant leadership position by electing Ogodei's son, Guyuk, the Great Khan.

Things improved little under Guyuk's brief reign as the Mongol emperor, and the trouble began at his inauguration ceremonies. Batu, one of Genghis Khan's grandsons, and leader of a great Mongol territory in his own right, refused to attend the enthronement or support the new Great Khan. The authority of the Mongol's central government dropped to a new low under Guyuk, partly because of his heavy drinking and partly because of the break with Batu. Following Guyuk's death in 1248, Batu blocked any attempt to put a descendant of Ogodei on the Mongol throne. He did condescend however, to allow Guyuk's widow to act as regent until a new Great Khan could be proclaimed.

Supported by the widow of Genghis Khan's son Tolui, Batu convened a quriltai in the desert south of Lake Balkash in southeastern Kazakhstan in 1250. At this gathering, Tolui's oldest son, Mangu (Möngke), was proclaimed the Great Khan. The tribes under both Jagadai and Ogodei refused to attend the gathering, stating it would not be an official election unless and until the quriltai was held in the capital at Karakorum. Mangu eventually bowed to Mongol tradition and organized a second great coronation at Karakorum in Mongolia the following year. In an atmosphere of intrigue marked by a ruthless and bloody purge of his opposition, Genghis Khan's eldest grandson, Mangu, formerly secured the title of Kakhan.

Batu and the Mongol leaders in the west broke from the rest of the empire. Mangu Khan was a strong leader, a stern, warlike man and a Mongol through and through, but his strength could do little to stem the subtle, but inevitable undercurrents of disruption already at work in his empire. After further centralizing his rule and strengthening the army, Mangu turned the Mongol's attention eastward and set them on yet another expansive round of conquests that profoundly impacted the future course of Asian history. He ordered Tolui's son Hulegu westward on an expedition to Persia, while he and his younger brother Kublai set out to conquer the Song Chinese.

Mangu chose not to attack the Song heartland directly, but to outflank it and cut-off its lucrative overland trade with Burma and India. Responsibility for this campaign was given to the thirty-six-year-old Kublai, who set out in September 1253 from the city of Ningxia (near modern Yinchuan), the ancient capital of Xi Xia. Commanding one of four large Mongol armies organized for the conquest of southern China, Kublai led his 100,000-man army south and west across some of the most difficult terrain in Asia. He split his command, giving half the army to General Uriyangkhadai, the son of General Subedei. Their objective was to converge on the heavily fortified city of Dali, capital of the Kingdom of Nanzhou in western Yunnan Province.

Crossing the lofty Tibetan plateau into southwestern China, the Mongols found a land of swift flowing rivers, high mountain ranges, and numerous heavily fortified cities. The horse archers of the steppes had to battle not only the difficult terrain, but exposure to new diseases and the unfamiliar climate of southern China which seemed to turn against both man and horse alike. Kublai's warriors faced plenty of hard fighting as they marched, since nearly every valley had to be taken from native tribes defending their ancestral lands.

After a long and arduous fifteen month campaign through country long believed to be impassable, the two Mongol armies converged at Dali in the dead of winter. As Dali's defenders awaited the final onslaught, Kublai sent three of his officers to the city gates with large silk banners proclaiming, "on pain of death, do not kill." Just after the Mongols demanded the city's surrender, Dali defenders executed the three men. In a remarkable departure from their usual practice, the Mongols rode into Dali behind banners bearing the identical message, "on pain of death, do not kill." The city fell to Kublai and the Mongols with a total loss of only six men:  three Mongol officers and their two Dali executioners and the city's chief minister for defying Kublai's order. As a leader, Kublai was already showing himself to be civilized enough to realize that mercy could be as effective a weapon as massacre had been.

Kublai left the Kingdom of Nanzhou for the plains north of the Yangtze River, where he rejoined the Mongol armies of Mangu Khan. After decimating Song armies in this appalling campaign and suffering losses that approached 80,000 men, Kublai's first major military command was a resounding success. He had proved himself to be a first rate general and a skilled strategist. Kublai was greatly influenced by Chinese civilization and Chinese military thinking during this campaign, an influence that showed itself even more after his appointment as the Great Khan's Mongol Viceroy of the Chin.


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End of the Beginning Land of the Shogun