Creating Asian empires, learning from history.
The empires of Asia were expansive both in geography and in tenure. The Mongols had an empire that spanned the entire Asian continent as far as Europe, and the Ottomans ruled for almost 700 years, far wider and longer than any of their European counterparts. But what makes for a strong and lasting empire? There are many features that distinguish Asian empires from European ones. Asian empires were far less centralised in their governance structure as they maintained autonomous yet harmonious provinces, which were linked through trade, diplomacy and religion. But in order to adapt this type of structure, the first establishment of an empire demanded a capable leader, military know-how, and unification of a culture. Here’s how they did it, in three (seemingly) easy steps:
Step 1: Follow a smart, charismatic leader
Perhaps the most successful ruler of all time was Chinggis Khan in the late 1100s, whose Mongol empire stretched from the Japan sea to the Carpathian Mountains in Europe. He conquered this mass expanse within one generation, a testament to his ingenuity and persistence. Without his desire to expand his territory as well as his military expertise and persuasion of his people to carry it out, the Mongol empire would not have been the largest populated empire in history. Not only did he exhibit a high capability for military strategy, but he was also forward thinking in the way that he resourced human capital by incorporating conquered populations into the military and government structures. This allowed for greater invasive and protective capacity as well as for a more integrated society despite his empire being ethnically diverse.
Equally, the passion and ability of a rulers’ successor is important in establishing and further maintaining a successful empire. Without continued strong leadership, an empire can fall into disarray through internal feuds or rebellion from imperial rule. This occurred following Chinggis Khan’s death, when his empire was divided into separate states because he lacked one clear and capable successor. Contrarily, in the establishment of the Mughal empire, an undeniable successor to Babur was Akbar ‘the Great’, Babur’s grandson and descendant of Chinggis Khan’s bloodline. He continued the expansion of the empire that his grandfather laid the foundation for and elevated its rule through the establishment of a viable organization for the governance of different territories under his reign.
Step 2: Ensure military capability
There are a number of methods for creating a strong military. Not only does it benefit to have a large and skilled army, but it also needs to have a number of good resources specific to the area. For example, Chinggis Khan’s army bred very fast horses, who were able to transport the army far distances on the relatively flat plains that were abundant in the empire’s territory and surrounding areas.
Part of Chinggis Khan’s military success was his preying on communities that were experienced in military practices. In his book The Great Empires of Asia, Jim Masselos indicates that Chinggis Khan often targeted ‘pastoral nomadic communities’ whose constant movement regularly meant having to defend themselves as they navigated through new territories. This made these groups an asset to Chinggis Khan’s military once they were conquered because they were already trained. Chinggis Khan also realigned clan loyalties through a ‘decimal system’ (Masselos 2010), which effectively eliminated ethnic groupings from the army and created unity among them.
Additionally, advanced weapons technology can give an army the edge over its opposition. For example, the Ottoman Imperial army advanced the use of gunpowder for cannons and early rifles, which made it a force to be reckoned with, overpowering opposing armies.
Step 3: Create a lasting economy and culture
With larger empires came an influx of wealth to emperors due to taxes for land ownership and increased trade within their territories and with neighbouring empires. Investment into industries employing the conquered peoples was essential to bring prosperity to both the emperors and also to the people, to satisfy any discontentment after new siege. An example of this can be seen during the Khmer Empire (802-1566) in Cambodia as they established a water system to expand its rice industry.
Interestingly, after initial violence and cruelty that occurred during invasion into new territories, Asian empires were mostly accommodating of the varying ethnicities and religions that were conquered and chose to amalgamate the communities into a multi-cultural and diverse society. This was done, as Chinggis Khan did, by unifying the people into one society through employment with government administration and military. Those conquered were not grouped with their former clans or communities within the empire, but rather were divided on a numbers-based system. Then, the society worked as one to advance civilization within the empire in terms of art, architecture, philosophy, and science among others.
The development of art into unique styles for the empires marked their time in power. In addition to the Taj Mahal being identifyably from the Mughal Empire under emporer Shah Jahan, decades earlier, Akbar ‘the Great’ demanded new painting styles influenced by existing art from nearby territories, but still distinct and identifiable as from the Mughal empire. These arts and sciences created societal values that codified the empires’ importance in history.
The makings of a strong empire is not always as straightforward as in these steps, but the successes of the top Asian empires in history, from the Khmers as far back as the 800s to the Mughals from the 1500s demonstrate that these are among the key requirements. A visionary leader, effective military strategy and long-term societal planning are all incorporated in the initial steps for conquering a land and making it a unified empire.
Masselos, J. (2010). The Great Empires of Asia. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Updated December 2021
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