iii. In the Mongol Period

The incorporation of Persia into a vast empire that extended as far as China, following the conquests of Čengīz (Chinggis) Khan (602-24/1206-27) and his grandson Hülegü (Hūlāgū; 654-63/1256-65), inaugurated an era of particularly intense contact between Persia and China. The great khan (qaḡan, qāʾān) initially ruled this empire from Karakorum in Mongolia, but from his accession in 1260 Qubilai Khan resided in China, first at Chung-tu (close to modern Peking), then after 1272 in the new city of Ta-tu (Daidu; Ḵānbalīḡ, Ḵānbaleḡ) built close by (Rašīd-al-Dīn, Jāmeʿ al-tawārīḵ, II, pp. 455-57; Pelliot, pp. 140-43, 843-45). Diplomatic relations between Persia and the qaḡans, as well as other contacts between Persians and the Chinese, will be treated here, though the Chinese tendency to label all western Asians simply as hui-hui “westerners” frequently causes difficulties in distinguish­ing Persians from Central Asian Muslims or even non-­Muslims from the west.

In the first phase of Mongol rule the conquered territories in Persia were under civil administration; in the time of the qaḡan Möngke (Mengü, Mangū; 649-57/1251-59), who was a son of Čengīz Khan’s youngest son, Tolui (Tūlī), Chinese observers knew it as the “mobile secretariat installed in the area of the Āmū Daryā and other places” (A-mu He deng chu xing shang-shu sheng; Yuan shi, p. 45). Hülegü initially represented his brother Möngke in western Asia, but after the latter’s death in Šaʿbān 657/August 1259 he took advantage of the struggle for the succession between two other brothers, Qubilai and Ariḡ Böke (Arīḡ Būkā), and the resulting dissolution of the empire into a number of warring khanates to arrogate to himself the status of khan over a regional ulus (ulūs, olūs); he was then recognized by the victorious Qubilai (658-93/1260-94) as equal to the heads of the other branches of the imperial family (Jackson, pp. 230-35). He and his successors, who bore the title il-khan (lit. “subordinate khan”), maintained solidarity with their kinsman Qubilai in the Far East; for a time they were the only Mongol princes to acknowledge his supremacy. In his turn the qaḡan, who after 1271 reigned as Chinese emperor with the official dynastic title Yuan, regarded Hülegü and his successors as “prince of the western regions” (xi yu zong wang) and sent each new Il-khanid a diploma (yarlïḡ) confirming his title and posi­tion (Rašīd-al-Dīn, Jāmeʿ al-tawārīḵ, Baku, III, pp. 101-­02, 139, 205). Even the claim of the Il-khan Ḡazan (Ḡāzān) Khan (694-703/1295-1304) to sovereignty in his own right does not seem to have had an adverse effect upon relations with Ḵānbalïḡ, for, after Qubilai’s death, the Il-khanids continued to receive the share of revenues and produce in kind from China to which they had been entitled since 633/1236 (Bretschneider, II, pp. 11-13). Furthermore, the qaḡan’s personal representative at the Il-khanid court, Bolod Čīngsāng (Pūlād Jīnksānk, i.e., cheng-xiang “chancellor”), remained in Persia and was entrusted with important commissions until his death in 712/1313 (Qāšānī, pp. 42, 142, 147); he was one of Rašīd ­al-Dīn’s principal informants on Mongol history (cf. Barthold, Turkestan3, p. 45). The qaḡans conferred the title čīngsāng on some of the more important Mongol amirs in Persia, like Buqa (Būqā) in the reign of Arḡun (683-90/1284-91; see arḡuᵛnkhan) and Čoban (Čūbīn; see also chobanids) under Abū Saʿīd (716-36/1316-35), maintaining the fiction of Il-khanid subordi­nation until the end of the Yuan period (1280-1368).

The Mongol army that accompanied Čengīz Khan to Persia had included Chinese troops, and Hülegü had also brought with him Chinese generals and experts in the use of the ballista and the mangonel (Jovaynī, ed. Qazvīnī, III, pp. 92-93; Rašīd-al-Dīn, Jāmeʿ al-tawārīḵ (Baku), III, p. 22; Yuan shi, pp. 3523-25). Persians and Central Asian Muslims were equally useful to the Mongol rulers in the Far East. For example, Čengīz Khan took into his service a man—whether Persian or Turk is not known—called Sayyed-e Ajall (Sai Dian-chi) Šams-al-Dīn ʿOmar Boḵārī (d. 1279), who was later appointed governor of Yun-nan by Qubilai and who, together with his son Nāṣer-al-Dīn (d. 1292), was responsible for the spread of Islam in China (Hartmann, pp. 846-47). In 670/1271 Hülegü’s son Abaqa (Ābāqā; 663-80/1265-82) sent two catapult experts (pao-jiang), ʿAlāʾ-al-Dīn and Esmāʿīl, to assist Qubilai in his war with the Southern Song dynasty (1127­-1278); “western catapults” (Hui-hui pao) were instru­mental in bringing down the great city of Xiang-yang (Yuan shi, p. 4544; cf. Mathews, no. 4969), and the descendants of these two men were still serving the Mongol government in China in a similar capacity as late as 728/1329 (Moule, pp. 76-77; Pelliot, I, pp. 4-5).

The alliance between the Toluid rulers in east and west meant that envoys traveled between Persia and China virtually every year. One of the most distinguished was Bayan (Bāyān, d. 1295) of the Barin (Bārīn) tribe, whom Hülegü sent as envoy to Qubilai in about 662/1264. He was retained in the east by the qaḡan and rose to become commander-in-chief of the army that overwhelmed the Song in 1279; later he was in command of a large garrison stationed in Mongolia (Cleaves, 1956).

Nevertheless, diplomatic exchanges were hazardous throughout much of this period because of opposition to the Toluids among princes of the lines of Čengīz Khan’s other sons Čaḡadai (Jaḡatāy) and Ögedei (Ögödei, Ūgtāy, Ūktāy) in Central Asia (see chaghatayid dynasty). Although in a letter to Philippe le Bel, king of France, in 704/1305 the Il-khanid Öljeitü (Ūljāytū; 703-16/1304-16) reported that a general reconciliation had taken place within the imperial family in the previous year, it seems to have brought only a temporary halt to the hostilities (see Boyle, p. 399). In 713/1312-13, for example, the Chaghatayid khan Esen-buqa (Īsen Būqā, ca. 709-18/1309-18), who was once more at war with the Il-khanid ruler and the qaḡan, intercepted no fewer than four sepa­rate embassies from China to Persia, imprisoning or slaughtering the envoys (Qāšānī, pp. 204-05, 208). Such dangers could he avoided by following the sea route, Ḡāzān (Ḡazan) Khan’s envoy Faḵr-al-Dīn Aḥmad did in 698/1298-99 (Tārīḵ-e Waṣṣāf, pp. 505-07). In 690-92/1291-93 the party escorting the princess Kökejin (Kūkāčīn, Kūkājī) traveled by sea from Quan-zhou (Zaytūn; see ch’üan chou) to Hormoz; Marco Polo, who was on his return voyage to Europe, accompanied it (Pelliot, pp. 392-­94; Cleaves, 1976). The princess was to marry the Il-­khanid Arḡun, but, as he died before her arrival, she married Ḡāzān Khan instead (Rašīd-al-Dīn, Jāmeʿ al-­tawārīḵ, Baku, III, p. 280).

Contacts between Persia and China during the Mongol period led to a significant increase in geographical knowledge. Chinese envoys crossing the Indian Ocean used a Persian sea chart (Hai dao hui-hui la-na-ma [rāh-nāma “road book” or rāhnemā “guide”]), and it was on the basis of information from Muslim traders and travelers that the Chinese cartographer Zhu Si-ben drafted a map of the whole Mongol empire (Jing shi da dian tu) in about 732/1332; about thirty Persian cities appear on it (Fuchs). In Persia the minister and historian Rašīd-al-Dīn Fażl-Allāh (d. 718/1318) was able to incorporate in his voluminous Jāmeʿ al-tawārīḵ (Universal history) a relatively brief history of China, the information for which had been furnished by two Chinese scholars (see Blochet, pp. 100­-2; Barthold, Turkestan3, p. 45).

In the fields of astronomy and astrology Chinese scholars are known to have assisted Naṣīr-al-Dīn Ṭūsī (597-672/1201-74) at the observatory that he built for Hülegü at Marāḡa in 657/1261 (see Blochet, pp. 100-02). A Persian astronomer named Jamāl-al-Dīn Boḵārī, who had already visited China in the time of Möngke, returned there in 1267, carrying diagrams of astronomical instru­ments as gifts for the qaḡan and presenting a new calendar, the Wan nian li, to the Yuan court (see Kennedy, p. 678 with refs.). In 1271 Qubilai founded the Hui-hui Si Tian Jian (Institute of Muslim astronomy). Muslim scholars also introduced into China Arabic and Persian alchemy, mathematics, medicine, pharmacology, and even Euclidean geometry (Yuan shi, pp. 998-99; Wang, chap. 7, pp. 14b-16a). Muslim physicians and drugs were highly regarded at Qubilai’s court; on the other hand, Rašīd-al-Dīn, in his Tangsūq-nāma-ye Īl-ḵān dar fonūn-­e ʿolūm-e ḵetāʾī, provided a Persian abridgment of four Chinese anatomical and pharmaceutical works. “Moḥammadan blue” played a part in the production of Chinese porcelain (see cobalt), and Chinese artistic ideas in turn exercised a powerful influence on the development of Persian miniature painting and ceramics (see xi and xii, below; Survey of Persian Art, pp. 2042-61; see also čīnī, cintāmanī). Printing may have been imported into Persia and elsewhere in the Middle East from China at this period (see čāp); certainly the ill-fated experiment with printed paper currency, or chao (čāv), by the Il-khanid Gaiḵatu (Geyḵātū; 690-94/1291-95) in 693/1294 was inspired by Chinese example (Carter and Goodrich, pp. 172-73, 175).

Under the Mongols a significant number of Muslims settled in China, where they were grouped in the second of the four classes into which the population was divided, that of the se-mu, or various non-Chinese ethnics in the western provinces (cf. Huang, p. 84); many served as government officials (compare the story of the Muslim “*Maij-al-Dīn” in the late 13th century; see Huang, pp. 88-90). A large proportion must have been Persians, and indeed Persian was one of the languages in official use under the Yuan (see Huang, passim; and viii, below). Ebn Baṭṭūṭa (IV, pp. 289-90), who was in China in the mid-8th/14th century, mentioned the son of a Mongol amir in China who was especially fond of Persian singing; on one occasion he ordered his court musicians to sing several times a poem by Saʿdī, which they had set to music (Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, tr. Mowaḥḥed, II, p. 750 n. 2). The employment of Muslims in the Chinese administration was in keeping with the Mongols’ policy of relying on outsiders (and representatives of minority or subject groups) to lead their conquests; such foreigners would have every incentive to serve their masters loyally and could also be used as scapegoats in the event of a crisis caused by Chinese resentment (cf. Rossabi). Many of the Muslims in the fiscal administration were merchants, members of an ortaq (ūrtāq), or commercial association; they frequently acted as tax farmers and made loans to the government or to high-ranking Mongols. In the larger cities along the coast Muslim communities were governed by their own leaders, often with the rank of šayḵ al-Eslām (she-Si-lian; Mathews, nos. 5710, 5580, 4003), for example, Borhān-al-Dīn Kāzerūnī (Bu-lu-han Ding, Mathews, nos. 5379, 4176, 2033? 6381), who had come to China with an embassy from Öljeitü and held this office at Zaytūn (Liu, 1984, pp. 176-80; cf. Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, IV, pp. 270-71). For a time after 1280 Muslims in the qaḡan’s dominions suf­fered from regulations against certain religious observances; these restrictions appear to have caused a slack­ening of the traffic carried on by Muslim merchants until Qubilai relaxed the policy in 1287 (Rašīd-al-Dīn, ed. Blochet, pp. 521-23; tr. Boyle, pp. 293-94; cf. Pelliot, pp. 77-78). In the 8th/14th century, the qaḡans came to de­pend more on Chinese personnel, and after the Mongols’ expulsion from China in 1368 and the advent of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the Muslim role in the financial administration of the country was terminated (cf. Rossabi, pp. 294-95).



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Yuan shi, Beijing, 1976.

(Liu Yingsheng and Peter Jackson)

Originally Published: December 15, 1991

Last Updated: October 14, 2011

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Vol. V, Fasc. 4, pp. 434-436