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Europe’s Fear of Asia

Why were the Mongols despised by Europe during the Enlightenment period?

April 4, 2005

Why were the Mongols despised by Europe during the Enlightenment period?

The renaissance writers and explorers treated Genghis Khan and the Mongols with open adulation. In contrast, the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe produced a growing anti-Asian spirit that often focused on the Mongols as the symbol of everything evil or defective in that massive continent.

As early as 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu set the tone in his treatise "The Spirit of the Laws."

He held the Asians in haughty contempt and blamed much of their detestable qualities on the Mongols, whom he labeled "the most singular people on earth."

He described them as both servile slaves and cruel masters. He attributed to them all the major attacks on civilization — from ancient Greece to Persia.

Montesquieu said, "They have destroyed Asia, from India even to the Mediterranean — and all the country which forms the east of Persia they have rendered a desert." Montesquieu glorified the tribal origins of Europeans as the harbingers of democracy, while he condemned the tribal people of Asia.

Based on this history, he summarily dismissed all of Asian civilization. "There reigns in Asia a servile spirit, which they have never been able to shake off, and it is impossible to find in all the histories of that country a single passage which discovers a freedom of spirit — we shall never see anything there but the excess of slavery."

Other writers quickly copied the method of holding up the Mongols as symbols for world evils. The Mongols became the victims of an extended literary and scientific assault.

However, the most pernicious rationale for Asian inferiority did not emerge from the philosophers and artists in Europe, as much as from the scientists — the new breed of intellectuals spawned by the Enlightenment.

It soon became clear to these theorists that the Mongoloid race exhibited a close relationship to the orangutan — the Asian ape. The similarity showed not only in facial traits, but also in postures.

Asians, like orangutans, sat with folded legs in the "Mongolian" — or "Buddha" — position.

The category of Mongoloid expanded steadily. It came to include all American Indians and Eskimos — as well as "the northern Chinese, the southern Chinese, the Tibetans, the tribal peoples of southern China, the Mongols, some of the Turks, and the Tungus, Koreans, Japanese and Paleo-Asiatic peoples," as Robert Chambers put it in "Vestiges of the Natural History of Generation."

Once in place and widely accepted in Western science, the system of Mongoloid classification inspired new applications.

Based on the physical description of some retarded children as marked by Asian facial features, it became apparent to the scientists of the era that they must also belong to the Mongoloid race.

The first recorded link between retarded children and the "Mongoloid race" occurred in the above mentioned 1844 study by Robert Chambers, who associated the malady with incest.

"Parents too nearly related tend to produce off-spring of the Mongolian type — that is, persons who in maturity still are a kind of children."

In the intervening years since the Renaissance and the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan had been degraded to the lowest level of human history. In its newfound colonial power and its self-imposed mission to rule the world, modern Europe had no room for Asian conquerors.

Christian colonialists and Communist commissars alike sought to rescue the Asians from the horrible legacy of barbarian dictatorship and bloodthirsty savagery imposed upon them by Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes.

The focus on the Mongols as the source of Asian problems — and therefore the rationale for European conquest of them from Japan to India — developed as an integral theme in the ideology of European conquest and colonization.

The supposed horrors of Genghis Khan and the Mongols became part of the excuse for rule by the more civilized English, Russian and French colonialists.

That kind of wholly negative interpretation of the Mongols clarify that the Enlightenment contrasts greatly with an earlier period of European history, the Age of Discovery.

Nowhere was the belief in the empire longer lasting or more important than in Europe. In 1492, more than a century after the last khan ruled over China, Christopher Columbus convinced the monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand that he could reestablish sea contact — and revive the lost commerce with the Mongol court of the Khan.

With the break-up of the Mongol communications system, the Europeans had not heard about the fall of the empire — and the overthrow of the Great Khan.

With so many empires striving to maintain the illusion of the Mongol Empire in everything from politics to art, public opinion seemed obstinately unwilling to believe that it no longer existed.

Columbus, for his part, insisted that — although the Muslims barred the land route from Europe to the Mongol court — he could sail west from Europe across the World Ocean and arrive in the land described by Marco Polo.

Columbus embarked on his voyage to find the Mongols. He carryed with him a printed copy of Marco Polo's travels, into which he had jotted copious notes and observations for his planned arrival at their court.

For Columbus, Marco Polo was not merely an inspiration, but also a practical guide. When he reached Cuba after visiting several smaller islands, Columbus believed that he was on the edge of the Great Khan's realm and would soon find the Mongol kingdom of Cathay.

Columbus remained convinced that the lands of the Khan lay only a little farther to the north within what we today recognize as the mainland of the United States.

Since he had not found the land of the Great Khan of the Mongols, he decided that the people he met must be the southern neighbors of the Mongols in India.

And Columbus called the native people of the Americas "Indians" — the name by which they have been known ever since.

Adapted from the book: "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford. Copyright © 2004, Published by Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc.