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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 24, 2020

Now that we’ve taken you through Hulegu’s campaigns during Mongke’s reign, it’s time we cut back east to Mongke himself, and the Mongol invasion of the Song Dynasty, the great and immensely wealthy masters of southern China. Among the largest and most thoroughly planned of Mongol campaigns, it was one cut suddenly short with drastic consequences for the Mongol Empire. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Planning a war against the Song Dynasty was no easy task. All of Mongke’s actions of his reign from 1251-1258 can be understood as him making preparations for it: cataloguing the resources and manpower of the empire, strengthening the central government and securing his various flanks. Mongke had valuable experience to use to determine his strategy; since 1234, the Mongols had fought rounds of inconclusive warfare with the Song; penetrating deep into the Dynasty’s territory, routinely defeating armies and taking cities, yet never able to make substantial gains and frustrated by Song tenacity, all in an environment almost tailor made to hampher cavalry armies.


To understand the war with the Song, it’s  necessary to introduce the Dynasty and its ruling house of Zhao- but what a task that is! In its 300 year history the Song were among the most complex and fascinating of all of China’s imperial dynasties, a period when Chinese culture reached staggering new heights. To summarize it with any accuracy requires an entire podcast series to do so-  the Cambridge History of China managed to get it down to two volumes totalling over 2,000 pages. The Song emperors oversaw a period of amazing economic, technological, agricultural and cultural achievements. Urbanization increased; the southern Song capital of Linan, modern Hangzhou, had a population in the 13th century conservatively estimated at 1.5 million. Paper money, a massive expansion and improvement of farming and rice cultivation, foreign and overseas trade, gunpowder, porcelain… the list goes on and on for either innovations or improvements the Song undertook. The wealth of the Song was immense, and it is rightly considered a Golden Age. 


The Song were a dominant force in China since the 960s, emerging in the decades after the fall of the powerful Tang Dynasty, a period of disunity called the 10 Kingdoms and 5 Dynasties.  Through great effort the Song swallowed up the other kingdoms of southern China and marched up into the north China plain, where they butted heads with the Khitan ruled Liao Dynasty. Rounds of warfare followed for the remainder of the 10th century, but a pattern which became all too routine emerged. The northern, largely cavalry based armies could outmaneuver and often annihilate the Song armies, whose offensive performance was poor even at their height. Yet the Khitans were frustrated by the defensive ability of the Song, and were unable to hold gains made against them- particularly when a giant Song crossbow speared the Khitan leader in 1005. Weeks later, the Song and Liao came to terms for the infamous Chanyuan Treaty, marking their borders and requiring the Song deliver a massive annual tribute of silk and silver to the Liao.


Part of the reason for the often criticized poor offensive military performance of the Song goes back to its founder, Zhao Kuangyin (kuang-yin), Taizu of Song. Zhao was a military man, as was his father and grandfather. Zhao owed much of his rise to the military- and also blamed it for the dissolution of the Tang Dynasty. Often, new Chinese dynasties structure themselves on what they perceived to be a key weakness of the preceding dynasty. To Zhao Kuangyin, the breakup of the Tang Dynasty came from military leaders and generals who grew too powerful, ignoring the imperial court to seek their own power, such as An Lushan in the 8th century. To Zhao, internal stability of the dynasty could only be secured with the military on a tight leash. Soon after consolidating power, the military leaders who had helped Zhao rise were eased into retirement and the army placed under permanent civilian command, the Bureau of Military Affairs. While often lambasted by later commentators, especially in the Youtube comments section, it wasn’t a horrible idea. The Song Dynasty was never beset by warlords seeking independence and still succeeded in seizing most of China. The fact the dynasty went up against some of the fiercest military powers of the medieval world could not have been predicted.


While an uneasy status quo was reached with the Khitans, in the early 12th century a major upheaval arose in the form of the Jurchen and the Jin Dynasty. In a few short years the Jin crushed the Liao; the Song allied with the Jin in an effort to seize Chinese territory and failed miserably. The alliance between Jin and Song hardly outlived the Liao Dynasty. In 1125 the Jurchens’ fearsome heavy cavalry tore through the Song; by the end of the 1120s the Song capital of Kaifeng was taken, the Song Emperor Qinzong,  whose father who had recently abdicated,  and most of the imperial family and court, were all captured. Northern China was taken,  the Song Dynasty was in turmoil and nearly collapsed. The ninth son of the abdicated emperor managed to flee south, and recentre the Dynasty around Linan, modern Hangzhou, a coastal city at the mouth of the Yangzi River. This much reduced dynasty is usually termed ‘the Southern Song,’ to distinguish from the ‘Northern,’ when it ruled most of China. Over the 1130s leadership issues among the Jurchen, difficulties campaigning in south China and renewed defensive vigour by the Song halted Jin expansion, and a treaty in 1141 marked the Huai River as the boundary between Jin and Song. The Treaty of Shaoxing reimposed similar annual tribute demands as that of the Chanyuan treaty, thousands upon thousands of taels of silver and bushels of silk to be delivered to the Jin, and the Song had to recognize the Jin Emperor as the Son of Heaven- traditionally reserved for only a single ruler of China. The treaty was a humiliation and economic burden, on top of having to lose northern China. The peace was tense, and every few decades war resumed between Jin and Song, with neither able to make gains beyond the Huai. 


Relations were somewhat cordial from the 1160s to the end of the 1180s, during the long and stable reigns of Shizong of Jin and Xiaozong of Song, something of a golden age for both states, though neither abandoned their territorial claims. Their successors were not nearly as capable and lacked the will, ability or the interest to direct forces within their courts. In the early 1200s, as the Jin were distracted by the northern steppes and ecological disasters, Song revanchism reached a new height. Seeking to take advantage of perceived Jin weakness, the Song launched a surprise invasion in 1206:  before the end of the year, the Song were sending peace overtures to the Jin. Song forces were largely repulsed, the top military commander in Sichuan defected to the Jin, and the Jin counter attacked with a massive, nine pronged assault along the entirety of their 2000 kilometre long border. Despite this massive expenditure of manpower, the Jin made no gains, Peace was reached by 1208, the Song providing an increased annual tribute of 300,000 ounces of silver and bolts of silk, and heads of the ministers seen as responsible for promoting the war. Humiliating as it was, the Song at least did not have to make territorial concessions. 


Perhaps the greatest consequence of that brief round of warfare was that it distracted the Jin and occupied its considerable resources from the trouble brewing on their northern frontier; the unification of the Mongol tribes under Chinggis Khan. In 1211, Chinggis Khan invaded the Jin Empire, as covered far back in episode seven. The initial Song reaction was somewhat mixed; no tears were shed in Linan for the suffering of the Jin, but whether this was something the Song should take advantage of was another matter. Either way, in the aftermath of the peace in 1208, for the next 25 years the Song court was largely dominated by the Chancellor Shih Mi-yuan, a man who urged stability and moderation rather than progress or reform. No risky military escapades would be undertaken on his watch. 


The Song were unable to provide their annual tribute due to the fighting from 1211-1214. Many voices in the court loudly argued against continuing it all, for what was the use in sending it to a dying dynasty? Demonstrating his often indecisive policy making, Chancellor Shih Mi-Yuan did not actually stop the tribute, but held the allotted tribute in storage. He may have secretly resumed it in 1214, hoping to keep the peace with the Jin while avoiding angering more voices in the capital. The fact that even the Tangut and Korea had halted their payments to the Jin was not lost on Shih Mi-Yuan’s detractors. Neither was this appeasement even successful, for in spring 1217 the beleaguered Jurchen, having lost most of the northern half of their empire to the Mongols, attacked the Song. The intention was to restore both some dignity to the dynasty, and further space for the Jin court to flee from the Mongols if necessary. The result was not what they anticipated. Shih Mi-Yuan, while openly favouring the status quo and not mobilizing armies, had also ordered border defences improved and gave regional commanders greater autonomy with little interference from the central government. Song defensive forces responded quickly, and Jin offensives were not just actively repulsed, but in some cases led to successful Song campaigns into Jurchen territory. For the Jin it was a great shock, a blow to morale and resources at a time where they had little enough of either to spare. The Song and Shih Mi-yuan in particular had a new confidence against the Jin, spurning their envoys and in 1219, cutting off all diplomatic contacts with them.


About this time, in 1221, the Song sent their first diplomatic mission to the Mongols, notable in that it was recorded in a written account still accessible today, the Mengda beilu. The initial Song perceptions of the Mongols, as described in an excellent article by historian Chad Garcia, presents the Mongols as a ‘different kind of northerner.’ Contrasting them to the deceitful and malicious Jurchen of the Jin Dynasty, the Mongols are something of “noble savages;” honest, straightforward, physically strong if not attractive. Chinggis Khan is described in heroic characteristics fitting the archetypal Chinese emperor, with a large, broad forehead and long beard. No mention is made of them as especially terrifying or cruel.


As we’ve mentioned no shortage of times in the past, the absence of Chinggis Khan in the west against the Khwarezmian Empire and death of Mukhali, the commander in the Chinese theater in 1223, resulted in a great reduction of Mongol pressure on the region. The deaths of the Tangut, Jin and Song rulers over the following years allowed new voices to come to the fore. This is dealt with more fully in episode 14 of this series, but the result was a general ceasefire between them. While a brief respite, it was no more than a breath before the plunge; episode 14 also details the destruction of the Jin Empire in the early 1230s during the reign of Chinggis’ son and successor, Ogedai. Song Chancellor Shih Mi-yuan sought to stay out of the conflict and maintain Song neutrality- though the Mongols penetrated the Song border and raided in order to outmaneuver Jin forces, while also demanding an alliance against them. There was a minority of voices within the dynasty warning of the danger of the Mongols. Once the Jin no longer stood as a buffer between them, what then? Shih Mi-yuan may have been mindful of this, but was dead by autumn 1233. In the weeks before his death, as age reduced his presence in the court, the Song had agreed to assist the Mongols in the final attack on the Jin, reduced to a strip of  land along the Song northern border. The Mongols needed to ensure the Jin emperor, Aizong of Jin, could not flee into Song territory. In return for this aid, the Song were given vague promises of land to be restored.


In the first months of 1234 the Jurchen Jin Dynasty was destroyed, its last emperor killed fighting in the streets. Yet, the promises of land did not materialize; Kaifeng, once the capital of the Song Dynasty, still remained in Mongol hands. Angry and belligerent voices, particularly among those who had only fought rebels with no experience of the Mongol way of war, were particularly loud in their complaints on the matter. Seeking to restore what was ‘rightfully theirs,’ and anticipating the local Han Chinese population would gladly rise up to join them, several Song armies marched over the Huai river in the middle of 1234… and promptly found a desolated, war torn landscape, a population unable to feed these armies let alone take up arms. The Song armies began a disorganized retreat, which turned into a rout when Mongol forces returned. Foolishly, the Song had just begun a 45 year long war.


Ogedai Khaan sent armies under his sons Kochu and Koten to lead raid the Song. Generally, these were in two regions: along the central frontier on the Huai River, and more westerly in Sichuan. Sichuan, where we’ll spend much of the rest of the episode, was, before the permanent incorporation of Tibet, Xinjiang and Gansu, the westernmost part of China. Roughly a bowl surrounded by mountains cutting it off from the rest of China, the Sichuan basin juts up against the eastern reaches of Tibet. Fertile, is one of the most densely populated regions of China, the Yangzi river which flows through it providing ample moisture for rich cultivation of rice, and a route to connect with the rest of southern China. Hot, humid and famous for its thickly forested mountain slopes, Sichuan saw more than its share of it fighting in the coming decades.


In both 1235 and 1236, attacks were led upon the central border and Sichuan; Koten led a particularly large, multi-ethnic force into Sichuan in 1236. The damage was immense. By the end of the year, only 4 of Sichuan’s 58 prefectural capitals still stood and Chengdu, the regional capital, was taken. The sudden successes were soured with the death of Kochu in November 1236 and retreat of most of the forces. Attacks in the rest of the 1230s were repulsed, often by the star Song general of the period, Meng Gong.  Whether the Mongols actually wanted to fight the Song at the time is unclear- certainly in 1234, they were not planning on it. In 1238, they sent envoys to the Song for a ceasefire, which the Song rashly brushed off. Deliberately they were choosing not to hold cities. In 1241 Hanchou fell to a general massacre, followed by a sudden Mongol withdrawal. Such actions may have been a reaction to a necessity of fighting against the Southern Song. The Song had no lack of manpower to fall upon, and the trouble with any rapid assault was that it would need to be able to reliably hold onto any territory taken. Mongols could rapidly penetrate the border defenses, but the threat of being surrounded was quite real. At the very least, without sizable garrisons any city could be quickly retaken by Song forces when the Mongols moved on. The generally hot, humid weather of southern China strained the Mongols and their horses, disease spreading quickly among troops unused to the climate. The general preponderance of rivers, mountains and forest made large cavalry operations difficult to effectively operate. On top of all of this, while the Song are often derided for some sort of innate military ineffectiveness, the most pressing issue was the fierceness of the Song defenders. Resistance was strong, and it was not unusual for the Mongols to find a campaign suddenly held up by valiant defenders in one city, locking at least a portion of the Mongol army in place for months and, in some cases, years.


By the time of Ogedai’s death at the end of 1241, no major gains had been made, though the Song had suffered a good mauling. Little effort was made over the remainders of the 1240s, the Mongols dealing with the political issues relating to the regencies and short reign of Guyuk Khan. Diplomatic discussions took place in 1247, which went nowhere. The Song could in the meantime prepare border defences, repair walls and mobilize men, though at great cost. Printing yet more paper money to solve inflation did not, it turns out, do so. Taxes made it back to the capital in smaller and smaller amounts as regional governors and commanders seized them to pay for the war effort. Sichuan suffered so terribly that it apparently provided no revenue to the capital after 1234. For the Song, the yearly cost to simply keep their armies mobilized was immense. Drought, flooding, epidemics, fires and locusts struck often over the 1240s-50s, another layer of cost which, through augmenting the destruction of farmland from Mongol attacks, further strained government resources. An ever growing bureaucracy brought more corruption, more cost and more issues. The emperors of the thirteenth century showed less and less interest in governing, leaving an ever-more divided imperial court to run things. After the death of Shih Mi-yuan and the last of his followers in 1251, the Song court was hamstrung by fighting between eunuchs and bureaucrats vying for power. Despite their vast wealth, they were under immense pressure threatening to collapse the dynasty, just as Mongke Khaan prepared to hurl the weight of the Mongol Empire upon it.


Mongke knew the assault on the Song was an immense task. In 1252, sending his brother Hulegu to the far west to subdue the rest of the Islamic world, Mongke ordered his other brother Kublai to take another army against the Song. Rather than throw men at the well defended Song northern borders- a strategy so far ineffective- Mongke sent Kublai to subdue the independent kingdoms along the Song’s southwestern border in what is now China’s Yunnan province, where Song defences were much weaker.


Kublai had not yet commanded armies in person before this campaign, so Mongke provided him a guiding figure: Uriyangqadai, the son of the mighty Subutai. Setting out in late 1253 from forward bases in Gansu, the former territory of the Tangut, Kublai’s army marched in three columns; an eastern column under the Chinese defector Weng Dezhen, which marched through Sichuan, the main army under Kublai and the western column under Uriyangqadai, both marching hrough the eastern edges of Tibet. Tibet’s conquest by the Mongols is a bit of a shadowy thing, difficult to reconstruct due to only brief mentions in the sources. By the early 1250s, most of the Tibetan tribes were subdued or paying tribute to the Mongols, who had sent repeated armies into the region over the previous two decades. By the mid-1250s, Tibet was largely under Mongol authority, though it would need to be reimposed and strengthened later in the century. 


Cutting through the mountains of Tibet, Kublai’s army fell upon the hills of Yunnan and the Kingdom of Dali. Founded in the 10th century, Dali controlled the valuable trade between the Song Dynasty and the kingdoms of  Guizhou, Tibet, Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. Relations with the Song were amicable, and Dali became the Song’s major supplier of horses with the loss of Northern China; but Dali was independent and somewhat isolated from the affairs of the Chinese. Central authority of the Dali kings had declined by the thirteenth century, their actual rule hardly extending beyond their capital, also called Dali. By the time of Kublai’s invasion in 1253, the Dali King was puppet for his chief minister, who had ordered the deaths of Mongol envoys. Dali’s army would be no match for the Mongol forces, even under an inexperienced commander like Kublai. Crossing a river on sheepskin rafts, Kublai’s army surprised and destroyed the main Dali army under the Chief Minister, who fled back to the capital. In the last days of 1253, Kublai’s three armies converged on Dali City. In Chinese sources, Kublai’s confucian teacher Yao Shu convinced Kublai to spare the city’s inhabitants, and in January 1254 Dali submitted to the Mongols. The victorious Kublai returned back to north China, where he was appointed administrator and got up to other problems, as detailed in episode 23.  Uriyangqadai was left to subdue the remaining local powers and prepare for the great assault on the Song, as well as recruit locals to serve in the army. He moved against the independent kingdoms of China’s modern Guizhou province, the intermediate area between Song and Dali. He returned briefly to Gansu in early 1257, but in his absence revolt broke out in Dali, bringing Uriyangqadai back into the region. His efforts eventually led him to ride into northern Vietnam, Dai Viet, called Annam in Chinese sources. His envoys were killed, and Uriyangqadai attacked the capital, Thang-long, modern day Hanoi. Thang-long was greatly damaged, the king forced to flee to an offshore island, and send a son as royal hostage to the Mongols as well as tribute. Dai Viet was now vassal of the Mongol Emperor.


Though the Yunnan-Guizhou region would not be fully pacified until the 1280s, it was secure enough to act as a staging ground for the assault on Song. With affairs in order and resources from across the empire pooled, Mongke felt confident to launch the final war on the Song. The total force was immense: as many as 600,000 in some sources to attack Song from several directions. Mongke gathered his forces in the Liupan mountains in 1258, not far from where his grandfather, Chinggis Khan, had died some thirty years prior. Mongke was to take his force against Sichuan; a second army under his cousin Taghachar, was to strike east from the Liupanshan to the Song metropolis of Xiangyang, which controlled access to the vital Song river routes; Kublai was to take a third force from north China to the central regions of the Yangzi river, focusing on the city of O-zhou, today’s Wuhan. The fourth army was under Uriyangqadai, who from Yunnan would hammer the Song from the west and link up with Kublai and Taghachar along the Yangzi.


The idea was twofold. By striking the Song along so many frontiers, they would be unable to converge against a single army, while the Song empire could be split in half. With the capital and administration based on the far eastern edge of the Song realm, the Mongols could isolate it and perhaps drive a mammoth wave of refugees to it. 


In the Autumn of 1258, Mongke’s host descended upon Sichuan. 100,000 troops had recently been sent by the Song to reinforce it, but frustratingly little else had been done by the central government to help repair fortifications of that western region. During the march on Dali some five years prior, much of Sichuan was occupied, but the major population centres stood defiant. The Grand Khan himself was now taking the field against them. Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, a population of almost one million, quickly fell and it’s plain was soon in Mongol hands.  Initial successes were significant, but as 1258 turned to 1259, Mongke found himself bogged down in sieges in eastern Sichuan. Outside of the plain of Sichuan, the province turns to rugged mountains and valleys. Recently constructed mountain tops fortresses proved difficult to take; Chongqing, one of the major cities along the Yangzi in the region, was turned into a network of fortresses. Defenders fought tooth and nail, knowing defeat meant slaughter for them and their families. Mongke’s problems grew as he sought to take Ho-chou. For five months, the city resisted his efforts,  heavy losses frustrating him. By June, rain became incessant. Humidity and the climate proved an effective weapon. Disease spread rapidly among the Mongols and their horses. Even troops levied from northern China were unused to it, and progress halted. Mongke fought the rest of the summer in the hills around Ho-chou, trying to keep up the army’s momentum. Precisely how things went in August is not agreed upon in the sources. Mongke seems to have been drinking heavily, perhaps recognizing the water spread foul diseases to his men. His judgement and reflex may have been impaired, perhaps his own fortitude suffering. The sources speak of an arrow from the defenders of a local fort, or a projectile launched from a catapult. Others, of cholera or dysentery brought on by the conditions. No matter what it was, on the 11th of August, 1259, Mongke Khaan was dead.


His army ground to a halt. Messages were sent to the other armies, and Mongke’s son Asutai quickly took his father’s body back to Mongolia for burial. According to Marco Polo, the army killed everyone they came across as they hauled his corpse. News spread quickly, the Song found new heart: the great Khaghan was dead! Taghachar Noyan’s army had already floundered outside the walls of Xiangyang. Kublai, delayed by his severe gout, had not yet even crossed the Yangzi River when he learned the news of his brother’s demise. Only Uriyangqadai had made progress, perhaps due to a greater number of locally raised troops from Dali suited to the climate. From Dali or Dai Viet, he had marched through the modern provinces of Guangxi and Hunan to reach Kublai on the Yangzi, allegedly fighting 13 battles, killing 400,000 Song soldiers and capturing several major generals. 


On learning of Mongke’s death, Kublai continued to campaign for another two months, initially dismissing it simply as a rumour, then stating he had been ordered south by the Khaan, and it was his duty to carry out his will. Crossing the Yangzi, he succeeded in taking O-chou, modern Wuhan. Perhaps the desire to get something done on the campaign drove him, or perhaps a thought crossed his mind: he didn’t have much for a military reputation. Taking a major city like O-chou would alleviate that, and make him a better candidate for the leadership to succeed Mongke. Doubtless, he imagined it would be months before an election would be held, giving him ample time to score some victories for his resume.


Therefore, he was quite surprised when messages came from his wife, Chabi, in late November 1259, warning that Kublai’s youngest brother, Ariq Boke, was making moves to become Khaan. Ariq had been left as regent in Karakorum while his brothers were on campaign, and now looked to declare himself Khaan before the families had all assembled. For Kublai, this was an opportunity he could not afford to lose. Thus he departed Wuhuan in winter 1259, the Song, under their new chancellor Jia Sidao, warily watching the frontier and seeking to reclaim the lost territory. Little could they have predicted, but the age of the unified Mongol Empire had just ended. Providing no designated successor, Mongke’s death opened a vacuum, one which would tear every fracture within the empire to the surface.  Civil war across Eurasia was about to follow, and the Song were offered a brief respite from the Mongols. 

Our next episodes look at the great civil wars of the Mongol Empire, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast for more. If you’d like to help us keep bringing you outstanding content, please consider supporting us on patreon at I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.