The Mongols ruled China from 1215 to 1368. Their dynasty was called the Yuan dynasty. Yuan means "origin" or "primal." Genghis Khan united the Mongols in 1206. He made his first inroads into China in 1215 when he captured Yanjing (Beijing), then a relatively large city in northern China. The complete conquest of China was left to his grandson Kublai Khan, who reached Linan in 1276 and claimed China in 1279. The Mongol era in China is remembered chiefly for the rule of Kublai Khan.
As in other periods of alien dynastic rule of China, a rich cultural diversity developed during the Yuan dynasty. The major cultural achievements were the development of drama and the novel and the increased use of the written vernacular. The Mongols' extensive West Asian and European contacts produced a fair amount of cultural exchange. Western musical instruments were introduced to enrich the Chinese performing arts. From this period dates the conversion to Islam, by Muslims of Central Asia, of growing numbers of Chinese in the northwest and southwest. Nestorianism and Roman Catholicism also enjoyed a period of toleration.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “During the Yuan dynasty, China—for the first time in its long history—was completely subjugated by foreign conquerors and became part of a larger political entity, the vast Mongol empire. Ironically, during this century of alien occupation, Chinese culture not only survived but was reinvigorated."Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
The first records of travel by Westerners date from this time. The most famous traveler of the period was the Venetian Marco Polo, whose account of his trip to "Cambaluc," the Great Khan's capital (now Beijing), and of life there astounded the people of Europe.
Yuan Dynasty rulers: Shizu (Kublai Khan 1260–94); Chengzong (1295–1307); Wuzong (1308–11); Renzong (1312–20); Yingzong (1321–23); (Taidingdi) (1324–28); Wenzong (1328–32); Mingzong (1329); Ningzong (1332–33); (Shundi) (1333–68).
Good Websites and Sources: on the Mongols and Yuan Dynasty Wikipedia Yuan Dynasty Wikipedia ; Mongols in China afe.easia.columbia.edu Mongols Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Mongol Empire allempires.com ; Ghengis Khan, National Geographic National Geographic.com ; Wikipedia Kublai Khan Wikipedia ; Kublai Khan notablebiographies.com ; Good Websites and Sources on the Song Dynasty: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; San.beck.org san.beck.org ; BCPS bcps.org ; Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses persiancarpetguide.com China Vista chinavista.com
Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)
Books: 1) Cambridge History of China Vol. 6 (Cambridge University Press); 2) 2) “Housing, Clothing, Cooking, from Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion 1250-1276" by Jacques Gernet (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962). 3) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 4) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); 5) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002;You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.
Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org ; Scythians iranicaonline.org ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia
Genghis Khan and the Mongols Invade China
After the Mongols under Genghis Khan (1167-1227) took control of much of Mongolia they set their sights on the Jin, a rich empire in northern China with 20 million people. From intelligence sources such as merchants and defecting Jin civil servants, Genghis Khan learned that the Jin empire was racked with internal problems and vulnerable to attack and that its huge army of 600,000 troops was pinned down on the southern border where the Jins were engaged in a long-running war with the Chinese.
Before leaving on the 1211 campaign against the Jin with a force of 70,000 men, Genghis Khan told his people that "Heaven has promised me victory." The Mongols breached the Great Wall of China by advancing through a 15-mile-long gorge with the help of a turncoat Chinese general.
The Mongols had little trouble conquering the overmanned and inefficient Jin army. Using the feigned retreat tactic to great success, a Mongol general nicknamed "Arrow" defeated the Jin army in an important battle at Juyong Pass. Capturing the Jin capital of Zhongdu (near present-day Beijing) was more problematic. The 40-foot walls that surrounded the city initially proved to be too difficult to surmount as the Mongol army contented itself with pillaging the Jin subjects in countryside around Zhongdu.
In 1214, the Mongols surrounded Zhongdu and used catapults to bombard the city's walls. After a short siege, the Jin Emperor Xuanzong gave up and presented Genghis Khan with a tribute of gold, silver, other treasures and a Jin princess with 500 servants in return for sparing the city.
Fearing another Mongol offensive, the Jin emperor moved his capital from Zhonghu southward to Kaifeng in 1214. Suspecting that the Jin emperor might be trying to regroup for an attack, the Mongols laid siege to Zhongdu again and this time pulverized the city and made off with the imperial treasure. Years later when a traveler remarked about a white hill he was told it was composed of the bones of Zhongdu's victims.
For more on the Mongols, Go to Home and Check Asian Topics, Then Horsemen
Mongol Invasions and the End of the Song Dynasty
The Song Dynasty was split in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties in 1127 when horsemen from the north called the Jurchen (ancestors to the Manchu) imprisoned the Emperor and captured the Song capital of Bianjing. The Jurchean were then conquered by another group of horsemen, the Mongols, in 1226. The Great Wall was supposed to keep horsemen like the Jurchen the Mongols out of China. It was breached partly because the horsemen simply went around it and the Chinese government wasted its military budget on an inefficient and unskilled Chinese fighting force rather than hiring horsemen mercenaries who fought using the same tactics as the Mongols. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “During the last century of the Song Dynasty, forces were gathering on the northern Asian steppe that were to have dramatic world consequences, affecting the shape of Chinese history. This was the period when the Mongol people were brought together under the leadership of Genghis Khan (or Genghis Khan,1165-1227) and his successors and launched lightning cavalry attacks on both East Asia and Eastern Europe, amassing for a brief time the most far flung empire that the world has ever seen. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“In 1226, the Mongol armies brought down the empire the Xixia state that had controlled the Central Asian corridor throughout the Song, and following this, they turned their attention to the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, exerting pressure from the north. To create a more secure military buffer, the Jin moved their capital from Beijing to the old Northern Song capital of Kaifeng, south of the Yellow River, but it was to no avail. In 1234, the Mongols brought an end to Jurchen rule in North China. /+/
“The Mongols may have been the most dominant military phenomenon until the atomic bomb. Their army was composed entirely of cavalry, and training on the wild steppe had toughened both horsemen and horses to travel enormous distances at great speed. Warriors learned to sleep in the saddle and to tap their horses’ veins for blood when food was scarce. The tradition of Mongol warfare was raiding; the pattern was to appear seemingly from out of nowhere, attacking settlements, towns, and cities with terrific ruthlessness, as much intent upon terror as conquest and loot. In Europe, they were widely believed to be a scourge sent from God, and during the thirteenth century, their conquests there extended as far west as Hungary and Poland. In the Middle East they occupied the lands of modern Iran and Iraq, extending west through most of Turkey.
Dr. Eno wrote: “The Southern Song military had been strengthened since the time of the Jurchen invasions, but it was not equipped to defend against the type of warfare launched by Mongol armies under Kublai. In 1279, the Song Dynasty fell to the invading armies in what was probably the bloodiest war ever witnessed on Chinese territory. Census figures that can provide the basis for population estimates for the period suggest that China’s population, which had burgeoned during the Song, was cut by as much as one-third, from about 120 million to 80 million, as a result of the Mongol incursions and the social chaos that followed them. Any analysis of why China did not follow the Song commercial revolution with the further development of modern institutions must take into account the devastating setback that was represented by the wars that brought an end to the Song. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
Kublai Khan and the Defeat of the Song Dynasty
Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan (1215-94) became the leader of the Mongol forces in the east in 1260. He established a capital in Beijing, and determined to conquer all China and rule their as emperor. In 1271, he proclaimed the establishment of a new dynasty, the Yuan, and began a campaign of conquest, aiming south. When Kublai Khan became ruler of northern China he tried to entice the Song dynasty into becoming one of his vassals. The Mongols had fought off and on with Southern Song Dynasty for more than four decades.
Kublai Khan sent an emissary to the Song offering them good terms if they submitted to Mongol rule. After the emissary was taken captive war broke out. For five years Kublai Khan's army besieged Xiangyang and Fancheng, two important Song cities on the Han River that guarded an important rice growing region in the Yangtze Basin. Using catapults capable of hurling 200-pound stones and a navy of Chinese- and Korean-built ships, the Mongols captured the two cities in 1273.
Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “Kublai was hugely outnumbered. The Song dynasty was a "a monumental culture" of 70 million people, says Man, and 10 to 100 times stronger in military terms. The Mongols had to be clever. One major battle took place at Xiangyang, a city with impenetrable walls dominating the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze. "This turned into a sort of a mini Troy," says Man. "The siege went on for five years. The Chinese could not break out, the Mongols could not break in. There were countless attempts to sneak in, to break in, to break out - all foiled. So there had to be some sort of a new initiative, and the initiative was suggested by the empire itself." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]
“The Mongol empire, that is. Kublai's relatives ruled all the way to Eastern Europe and he had heard of great catapults the Christians had used during the Crusades. He summoned two Persian engineers, who built the equivalent of heavy artillery - a catapult that could sling 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of rock over 200 meter-300 meter (650 feet - 1,000 feet). After a few shots to get the range, it brought down a mighty tower in a cloud of dust. The capture of the city allowed the Mongol fleets access to southern China which, for the first time, was taken by barbarians." ***
Hangzhzou was captured in 1276 by a Mongol army commanded by the Turkish general Bayan. In 1279, the last Song holdout were defeated. After capturing Hangzhou, Kublai Khan showed more restraint than other the Mongol leaders: the defeated Song army was not massacred; the city's inhabitants were not massacred; and the Song court was allowed to keep some of it wealth and privileges.
Yuan Dynasty Rule
Although the Mongols sought to govern China through traditional institutions, using Chinese (Han) bureaucrats, they were not up to the task. The native Han Chinese were discriminated against socially and politically. All important central and regional posts were monopolized by Mongols, who also preferred employing non-Chinese from other parts of the Mongol domain — Central Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe — in those positions for which no Mongol could be found. Chinese were more often employed in non-Chinese regions of the empire. [Source: The Library of Congress *]
Tristan Shaw wrote in Listverse: “Although the Mongol emperors adopted some Chinese customs and really weren’t radically different from their Han predecessors, their policies discriminated against ethnic Chinese and favored Mongols. In the four-tier social hierarchy of the time, Mongols sat at the top of the pyramid, followed by foreign groups like West Asian Muslims, northern Chinese, and then southern Chinese. The Mongols weren’t keen on giving up their cultural identity and generally tried to keep themselves separated from the Chinese, even enforcing different rules and laws for the two groups. This officially sanctioned discrimination upset many Chinese and made Mongol rule unpopular. [Source:Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 ^^]
Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) flourished, although native Taoism endured Mongol persecutions. Confucian governmental practices and examinations based on the Classics, which had fallen into disuse in north China during the period of disunity, were reinstated by the Mongols in the hope of maintaining order over Han society. *
Sinicization of the Mongol Leaders
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Mongols conquered China by force, but the advice of Liao, Chin, and Sung Confucian officials persuaded them to construct religious and Confucian temples, to establish schools, and to re-institute the civil service examination. The result was the adaptation to and adoption of Chinese systems of ritual and music to create a dynastic system for the Mongols in their Yuan dynasty. Though Mongol nobility had their own traditional rites, dynastic ceremonies followed in the Chinese tradition in which revivalistic ritual vessels of bronze and ceramic were often shaped in imitation of ancient bronze ones to suggest the continuity of Confucian traditions.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/]
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: ““Lacking experience in the administration of a complex empire, the Mongols gradually adopted Chinese political and cultural models. Ruling from their capital in Dadu (also known as Khanbalik; now Beijing), the Mongol Khans increasingly assumed the role of Chinese emperors. During the 1340s and 1350s, however, internal political cohesion disintegrated as growing factionalism at court, rampant corruption, and a succession of natural calamities led to rebellion and, finally, dynastic collapse. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]
“In spite of the gradual assimilation of Yuan monarchs, the Mongol conquest imposed a harsh new political reality upon China. As a group, the literati were largely ignored by the Mongols; those few who did enter government service often received only minor appointments, either as teachers in local schools or as low-level clerks. Southern Chinese, having resisted the Mongol invasion the longest, faced a conscious policy of discrimination, leading many scholars to withdraw from public life to pursue their own personal and artistic cultivation, often under the aegis of the Buddhist or Daoist religions. Drawing on the scholar-official aesthetic of the late Northern Song, Yuan literati painters no longer took truth to nature as their goal but rather used painting as a vehicle for self-expression. In the hands of highly educated scholar-artists, brushwork became calligraphic and assumed an autonomy that transcended its function as a means of creating representational forms." \^/
Contributions of the Mongols to China
The Mongols undertook extensive public works. Road and water communications were reorganized and improved. To provide against possible famines, granaries were ordered built throughout the empire. The city of Beijing was rebuilt with new palace grounds that included artificial lakes, hills and mountains, and parks. [Source: Library of Congress]
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Kublai Khan “patronized painting and the theater, which experienced a golden age during the Yuan dynasty, over which the Mongols ruled. Kublai and his successors also recruited and employed Confucian scholars and Tibetan Buddhist monks as advisers, a policy that led to many innovative ideas and the construction of new temples and monasteries. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]
“The Mongol Khans also funded advances in medicine and astronomy throughout their domains. And their construction projects — extension of the Grand Canal in the direction of Beijing, the building of a capital city in Daidu (present-day Beijing) and of summer palaces in Shangdu ("Xanadu") and Takht-i-Sulaiman, and the construction of a sizable network of roads and postal stations throughout their lands — promoted developments in science and engineering. <|>
Achievements of the Yuan Dynasty
Even though ordinary Chinese had little affection for him, Kublai Khan united China for the first time in 370 years and was a great supporter of Chinese culture. He put 3 million people to work extending the Grand Canal 135 miles to north so that rice could be transported from the fertile Yangtze Valley to Beijing. He also developed a fast, efficient, pony-express-like postal system that utilized thousands of horses; built roads between Beijing and the far reaches of the empire; reformed the Chinese bureaucracy; encouraged the arts and sciences; developed a famine relief program; and developed the world's first extensively-used paper currency system.
Kublai Khan promoted trade throughout the Mongol Empire. To Daidu, Marco Polo wrote: "are brought articles of greater cost and rarity, and in greater abundance...than to any other city in the world." From India came spices and pearls, and "no day in the year passes that there do no enter the city 1,000 cart-loads of silk."
Kublai Khan established an agricultural ministry that encouraged farmers to organize communes and distribute seeds and animals. "Before Kublai, the Mongols thought of farmers as useless people, the Chinese historian Chen Gaohua told National Geographic, "But Kublai appreciated them. He knew how to rule a farming country."
“During the Yuan period, Beijing became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. These commercially oriented improvements encouraged overland as well as maritime commerce throughout Asia and facilitated the first direct Chinese contacts with Europe. Chinese and Mongol travelers to the West were able to provide assistance in such areas as hydraulic engineering, while bringing back to the Middle Kingdom new scientific discoveries and architectural innovations. Contacts with the West also brought the introduction to China of a major new food crop--sorghum--along with other foreign food products and methods of preparation.
Religious Tolerance in the Yuan Dynasty
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongols had a benevolent attitude toward foreign religions, or at least a policy of benign neglect. Their belief in Shamanism notwithstanding, the Mongols determined early on that aggressive imposition of their native religion on their subjects would be counter-productive. Instead, they sought to ingratiate themselves with the leading foreign clerics in order to facilitate governance of the newly subjugated territories. They even offered tax benefits to the clerics of Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, and Nestorian Christianity in order to win the support of those religions. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]
“According to Marco Polo, Kublai Khan said: "There are prophets who are worshipped and to whom everybody does reverence. The Christians say their god was Jesus Christ; the Saracens, Mohammed; the Jews, Moses; and the idolaters Sakamuni Borhan [that is, Sakiamuni Buddha, who was the first god to the idolaters]; and I do honor and reverence to all four, that is to him who is the greatest in heaven and more true, and him I pray to help me."
Public Works Failures and Floods in the Yuan Dynasty
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The public-works projects that the Mongols initiated in China — the building of the capital city in Daidu (Beijing), the construction of a summer capital in Shangdu (Xanadu), the building of roads and a network of postal stations, the extension of the Grand Canal — were all extraordinarily costly. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]
“All these projects required vast investments of labor and capital secured through inordinately high taxation upon the peasantry and the merchants. Toward the end of Kublai Khan's reign, the Mongols resorted to a deliberate inflation of the currency to cover costs. Those who administered these policies — the financial administrators who initiated the additional taxation or inflation of the currency — were mostly foreigners, such as Muslims and Tibetans, that the Mongols had brought in from their other domains. <|>
Making dikes on the Yellow River
“These fiscal problems undermined the economy, and before long the Mongols could no longer maintain even the public-works projects traditionally supported by the native Chinese dynasties, such as the Grand Canal or the irrigation-control projects along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. The results were predictable. <|>
“In the 1340s terrible floods erupted, changing the course of the Yellow River and leaving a large group of people homeless and wandering around the countryside amid much confusion and destruction. Ultimately, some of these bands of unemployed and homeless peasants united into a rebel force, and in the 1350s began the process of ousting the Mongols from China. By the mid-1360s, many of the Mongols had already returned to Mongolia, and the Ming dynasty, a native Chinese dynasty, finally took back control of China in 1368.
Last Years of Mongol Empire in China
The Yuan dynasty didn't last long. The Chinese population didn't like the idea of foreigners ruling their country and replacing China's powerful civil servants with Mongols and other foreigners. To maintain control the Mongols courted wealthy landowners, which further alienated ordinary Chinese.
After the death of Kublai Khan, the Yuan dynasty became weaker and the Yuan dynasty leaders that followed him were increasingly aloof and paranoid. In the last years of Mongol rule, skittish Khans placed informers in the households of rich families, forbade people from gathering in groups and prohibited Chinese from carrying arms. Only one family in ten was allowed to possess a carving knife.
In the 14th century a series of epidemics and famines killed an estimated 35 million people---one in three Chinese. It is estimated that six million died of starvation during the Great Famine of 1333 and 1337 alone.
Toghon Temur: the Last Mongol-Yuan Emperor
The Yuan rulers were widely perceived as incompetent and decadent, and no Mongol emperor represented these unsavory qualities better than the last one,Toghon Temur. According to Listverse: “Toghon Temur, who had taken the throne when he was only 13 years old, was more interested in sex and Buddhist spiritualism than confronting the economic and natural disasters that had befallen China in the last few decades of Mongol rule. While his subjects were starving and dying from plague, Toghon Temur dressed up as a Buddhist priest and organized vast sex orgies in the Forbidden City. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016 ^^]
“As rebellions broke out across China, Toghon Temur and his chief minister contemplated the bizarre idea of killing anybody with the surnames Zhang, Wang, Liu, Li, and Zhao. These were five of the most common surnames among the Chinese. Had the plan been carried out, over 90 percent of the population would have been exterminated.” ^^
Mongol Collapse and End of the Yuan Dynasty
Rivalry among the Mongol imperial heirs, natural disasters, and numerous peasant uprisings led to the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was founded by a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk turned rebel army leader.
A rebellion against the Mongols was launched by Zhu Yuanzhang (Hung Wu), a "self-made man of great talents" and the son of a farm laborer who lost his entire family in an epidemic when he was only seventeen. After spending several years in a Buddhist monastery Zhu launched what became a thirteen year revolt against the Mongols as the head of a Chinese peasant insurgency, called the Red Turbans, made up of Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists and Manichaeists.
Mongols cracked down ruthlessly on the Chinese but failed to suppress the Chinese custom of exchanging little round full moon cakes during the coming of the full moon. Like fortune cookies, the cakes carried a paper messages. The clever rebels used the innocent-looking moon cakes to give instructions to the Chinese to rise up and massacre the Mongols at the time of the full moon in August 1368.
The end of Yuan dynasty came in 1368 when the rebels surrounded Beijing and the Mongols were ousted. The last Yuan emperor, Toghon Temür Khan, didn't even attempt to defend his khanate. Instead he fled with his the Empress and his concubines — first to Shangtu (Xanadu), then to Karakoram, the original Mongol capital, where he was killed when Zhu Yuanzhang became the leader of the Ming Dynasty.
Image Sources: Genghis and Kublai Khan, Ohio State University; Mongol cavalry attack, Washington University; Mongol actor, Brooklyn College; Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2016