Mobility, Empire and Cross Cultural Contacts in Mongol Eurasia

Wonhee Cho

Cho photo

Wonhee Cho

Yale University
Department of History

Project Description

My research project, titled “Ulama and Sufis in Comparative Perspective: a Comparative Analysis of the Religious Leaders in the Mongols Empire,” will compare the social, political and legal role of the Muslim religious classes, both Ulama (Muslim scholars) and Sufis (Muslim misticans) in the Muslim Mongol successor state, notably the Ilkhanate (1260-1335) to that of the clergy (Buddhist, Daoist, Muslim and Christian) in Yuan China (1260-1368). This project is based on my Ph. D. research where I focused on the role of different religions and their relations with the Yuan government in China. During my research in Jerusalem, I will focus on the position of the Muslim clergy, both before and after Mongol Islamization and in comparison to my previous research.


As a historian of the Mongol empire (1206-1368), I am particularly interested in religion, comparative empire studies and cross cultural interactions. My current book project, entitled Empire and Religion: Politics of Difference and Negotiation in the Mongol Empire (1206-1368), examines the different religions of the Mongol empire in China – Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Islam – and how they interacted with the empire. Following Gibbon, most historians think that the Mongols were religiously tolerant and governed a religiously diverse empire. I am interested in why the Mongols were open to different religions, how the Great Khans used the religions to their advantage, and how the leaders of the different religions reacted to the Mongol imperial policies in this religiously diverse empire.

Outsiders – both in the age of the Mongol empire like Marco Polo, and later scholars like Edward Gibbon – formulated the image of the Mongols as religiously tolerant. This image of a religiously tolerant Mongol empire suggests that there was a fixed, unchanging, and absolutely even-handed treatment of all of the different religions in the Mongol empire. If this were true, we would see one specific branch of government governing all of the different religions. We would observe, too, that the tax exemption privilege granted to each of the different religious leaders was a firm principle that would not change over time; that each religious group had identical juridical rights when they faced each other in joint courts, and that their juridical rights hold up over time. But my research reveals that the Mongols in the Yuan dynasty central government established different institutions for each of religion, different government offices oversaw the activities of the Buddhist, Daoists and Christians (the situation for Muslims is unclear).  The religious groups negotiated and challenged the various regulations over taxation and juridical rights with the result that these regulations also changed significantly over time.

My academic interest in the Mongols and other nomads, and their interactions with other peoples is closely related to my life, since I constantly moved around different places and adapted to different cultures. Born in South Korea, I lived in Australia when I was from three to nine years old, and some people say they can still hear my Australian accent when I speak English. I studied at Seoul National University as an English language and literature Major (B.A.), joined the Asian History Department M.A., a program where I studied Chinese, Japanese and Persian. I have completed my Ph. D. Studies at Yale University, and while I always say I have lived in the States for six years, I often forget that during that six-year period I spent a whole year at Beijing University as a visiting research student. Excited to be part of this project “Mobility, Empire and Cross Cultural Contacts in Mongol Eurasia” I hope my interest in computers and new digital methods of scholarship will contribute to this new database.