Veranstaltung

Nov 24, 2020
Empire and Information: How to be Understood in the Wake of the Mongol Empire’s Fall

Empires are commonly information hungry. Their administrative structures create, collect, catalogue, exploit, and promulgate information in ways that can simultaneously advance, subvert, and transform the interests of ruling houses, governing elites, and newly integrated peoples. This complex and interactive process relies on a measure of mutual intelligibility, even commensurability. Knowing and being known drive empires.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Genghis Khan and his successors created an unprecedently large empire that integrated lands and peoples from eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean, which in turn massively accelerated the flow of information, material objects, and people across most of Eurasia, including areas beyond Mongol rule. Superb fighting ability and horrible violence explain a part of initial Mongol success, but more vital for the empire’s sustainability was the ability to gather intelligence about local conditions, relay information across diverse cultures and long distances, communicate with local elites and common people, and persuade all members of the growing Mongol empire of its special mandate to rule. The vital task of the translation of Mongol authority depended on a wide, varied, and little appreciated (today at least) corps of specialists. They were responsible for making Mongol authority compelling to audiences of Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, and other orientations. To do so, they exploited oral communications, written words on paper, paintings, book illustrations, texts inscribed stone and metal, religious images woven into tapestries and cast in metal, architecture wrought of stone and wood, and more.
This paper explores what happened after the Mongol empire collapsed in the mid-fourteenth century. The basic argument is simple. Using the polity that replaced the Mongols in China as a case study, I suggest that the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) appropriated systems of communication established by the Mongol empire to further its own agenda. More specifically, I propose that the early Ming court used translations and inter-cultural correspondences (or equivalences) developed under the Mongol empire to tell the story of the Mongols’ fall and the Ming’s rise in ways understandable and compelling to a wide variety of audiences. The Ming dynasty’s efforts at persuasion required accurate and timely information about audiences at home and abroad and drew on a sophisticated repertoire of communication media that closely followed Mongol precedents and initially used the same personnel.
Exclusive focus on written texts produced by highly literate elite Chinese males often gives the misleading impression of cultural insularity and self-absorption, but the Ming dynasty’s translation projects remind us that the Ming court was determined to influence its neighbors’ perceptions and behavior; it took pains to make itself understood. Despite hoary stereotypes about inward-looking, ignorant, even xenophobic Chinese polities, China formed a part of the nascent early modern world’s communication networks and should not be consigned to magnificent isolation.

Adresse
MPIWG, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin, Germany
Room
Room 265
Kontakt und Registrierung

Attendance is mandatory for Department III members; those from other Departments and Research Groups are welcome! Due to space restrictions, we ask non-Dept. III participants to register in advance. Please send an email to event_dept3@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de if you would like to attend. We have ten spaces for visitors outside of the department.

Über diese Reihe

The Department III Colloquium series runs weekly (usually Tuesdays) during the semester. The paper for pre-reading is circulated by email one week in advance.

2020-11-24T14:00:00SAVE IN I-CAL 2020-11-24 14:00:00 2020-11-24 15:30:00 Empire and Information: How to be Understood in the Wake of the Mongol Empire’s Fall Empires are commonly information hungry. Their administrative structures create, collect, catalogue, exploit, and promulgate information in ways that can simultaneously advance, subvert, and transform the interests of ruling houses, governing elites, and newly integrated peoples. This complex and interactive process relies on a measure of mutual intelligibility, even commensurability. Knowing and being known drive empires. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Genghis Khan and his successors created an unprecedently large empire that integrated lands and peoples from eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean, which in turn massively accelerated the flow of information, material objects, and people across most of Eurasia, including areas beyond Mongol rule. Superb fighting ability and horrible violence explain a part of initial Mongol success, but more vital for the empire’s sustainability was the ability to gather intelligence about local conditions, relay information across diverse cultures and long distances, communicate with local elites and common people, and persuade all members of the growing Mongol empire of its special mandate to rule. The vital task of the translation of Mongol authority depended on a wide, varied, and little appreciated (today at least) corps of specialists. They were responsible for making Mongol authority compelling to audiences of Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, and other orientations. To do so, they exploited oral communications, written words on paper, paintings, book illustrations, texts inscribed stone and metal, religious images woven into tapestries and cast in metal, architecture wrought of stone and wood, and more. This paper explores what happened after the Mongol empire collapsed in the mid-fourteenth century. The basic argument is simple. Using the polity that replaced the Mongols in China as a case study, I suggest that the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) appropriated systems of communication established by the Mongol empire to further its own agenda. More specifically, I propose that the early Ming court used translations and inter-cultural correspondences (or equivalences) developed under the Mongol empire to tell the story of the Mongols’ fall and the Ming’s rise in ways understandable and compelling to a wide variety of audiences. The Ming dynasty’s efforts at persuasion required accurate and timely information about audiences at home and abroad and drew on a sophisticated repertoire of communication media that closely followed Mongol precedents and initially used the same personnel. Exclusive focus on written texts produced by highly literate elite Chinese males often gives the misleading impression of cultural insularity and self-absorption, but the Ming dynasty’s translation projects remind us that the Ming court was determined to influence its neighbors’ perceptions and behavior; it took pains to make itself understood. Despite hoary stereotypes about inward-looking, ignorant, even xenophobic Chinese polities, China formed a part of the nascent early modern world’s communication networks and should not be consigned to magnificent isolation. MPIWG, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin, Germany Room 265 Europe/Berlin public