Yuan horse-influenced art

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Until about 20 years ago, most scholars of Mongol-era China emphasized the destructive influence of Mongol rule.One major scholar of Chinese history even wrote: "The Mongols brought violence and destruction to all aspects of China's civilization. [They were] insensitive to Chinese cultural values, distrustful of Chinese influences, and inept heads of Chinese government." This assessment fits in with the traditional evaluation of the Mongols as barbarians interested primarily in maiming, plundering, destroying, and killing. As a 13th-century Persian historian wrote of the Mongol campaigns: "With one stroke a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert, and the greater part of the living, dead, and their skin and bones crumbling dust, and the mighty were humbled and immersed in the calamities of perdition." [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]

“It is true that the Mongols, in their conquest of both North and South China, did considerable damage to these territories, and that great loss of life certainly ensued. The population of North China did decline somewhat, though earlier estimates that there was a catastrophic decline in population have subsequently been revised. It is also true that the Mongols eliminated one of the most basic of Chinese institutions — the civil service examinations. The examinations remained banned until 1315, and even after the ban was lifted, they were no longer the only means to officialdom for the Yuan Dynasty, the dynasty that the Mongols founded in 1271 C.E., as they had been in the past.

“The Mongols perceived China as just one section of their vast empire. And they classified the population of their domain in China into a hierarchy of four groups — with the native Chinese at the bottom. The Mongols, of course, were at the top; then came the non-Han, mostly Islamic population that was brought to China by the Mongols to help them rule; third were the northern Chinese; and at the very bottom of the rung were the southern Chinese.

“The Mongol rulers were somewhat distrustful of the Confucian scholar-officials of China because they represented a different path for China than that which they themselves had conceived. These scholars, and other native Chinese, thus were not eligible for some of the top positions in the ruling government.”

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 ; Wikipedia Kublai Khan Wikipedia ; Kublai Khan notablebiographies.com ; Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 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 Books: “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty”by Charles Benn, Greenwood Press, 2002; "Cambridge History of China" Vol. 3 (Cambridge University Press); "The Culture and Civilization of China", a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan; “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.

Beijing: the Yuan Dynasty Capital

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Mongols made Beijing their capital as was entirely natural, for Beijing was near their homeland Mongolia. The emperor and his entourage could return to Mongolia in the summer, when China became too hot or too humid for them; and from Beijing they were able to maintain contact with the rest of the Mongol empire. But as the city had become the capital of a vast empire, an enormous staff of officials had to be housed there, consisting of persons of many different nationalities. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The emperor naturally wanted to have a magnificent capital, a city really worthy of so vast an empire. As the many wars had brought in vast booty, there was money for the building of great palaces, of a size and magnificence never before seen in China. They were built by Chinese forced labour, and to this end men had to be brought from all over the empire—poor peasants, whose fields went out of cultivation while they were held in bondage far away. If they ever returned home, they were destitute and had lost their land. The rich gentry, on the other hand, were able to buy immunity from forced labour.

“The immense increase in the population of Beijing (the huge court with its enormous expenditure, the mass of officials, the great merchant community, largely foreigners, and the many servile labourers), necessitated vast supplies of food. Now, as mentioned in earlier chapters, since the time of the Later Tang the region round Nanking had become the main centre of production in China, and the Chinese population had gone over more and more to the consumption of rice instead of pulse or wheat. As rice could not be grown in the north, practically the whole of the food supplies for the capital had to be brought from the south.”

Civilian Life in Yuan-Era China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongols had a great impact on civilian life in China. One major contribution in this area is the building of Daidu (present-day Beijing), the second Mongol capital. (Marco Polo calls this city "Cambaluc," for Khan Bhalik, meaning "The City of the Emperor"). Kublai Khan recognized that the Mongol capital at Khara Khorum was not suitable for a great empire, mainly because it required tremendous logistical efforts to supply the city. About 500 carts a day had to be transported into Khara Khorum to provide essential supplies of food and clothing for the population.[Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]

Kublai thus decided to move the capital farther south into China, to the area that is now Beijing. The new capital, called Daidu, became a typical Chinese-style city, though there also were plenty of Mongol touches associated with the city.

Merchants, physicians, scientists, and artisans traveled freely throughout the Mongol domains in Eurasia, and these interchanges of knowledge and culture became important not only for the rest of world, but for China as well. In 1291, the Mongols instituted a new legal code in China that was much more innovative and flexible than some of the earlier Chinese legal codes and also less onerous for the population. [ See Genghis Khan's Legal Coade Under Mongols]

Religious Life in Yuan-Era China

Yuan stone with a Nestorian inscription

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “An important legacy of the Mongols' reign in China was their support of many religions. Islam, for example, was well supported, and the Mongols built quite a number of mosques in China. The Mongols also recruited and employed Islamic financial administrators — a move that led to good relations with the Islamic world beyond China, in particular with Persia and West Asia. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]

“The Mongols were also captivated by Buddhism — particularly the Tibetan form of Buddhism — and they recruited a number of Tibetan monks to help them rule China and promote the interests of Buddhism. The most important of these monks was the Tibetan 'Phags-pa Lama. This policy resulted in an astonishing increase in the number of Buddhist monasteries in China, as well as in the translation of Buddhist texts.

“Even Nestorian Christianity was promoted by the Mongols, partly because Kublai Khan's own mother was an adherent of that faith. There was one religion, however, that did not have Mongol support: Daoism. Daoism was at that time embroiled in a struggle with Buddhism that often flared into actual pitched battles between the monks of the two religions. The Mongols, siding with the Buddhists, did not look favorably upon the Daoists. In fact, at a meeting in 1281 where Buddhist and Daoist monks debated the merits of their individual religions, Kublai Khan supported the Buddhists and imposed severe limits on Daoism. As a result of this meeting, a considerable number of Daoist monasteries were converted into Buddhist monasteries, some Daoist monks were defrocked, and some of the wealth and property of the Daoists was taken over either by the Mongol state or by Buddhist monasteries.”

“The Mongols did not abandon their own heritage, even as they adopted many of the values and political structures of the people they conquered and governed. In fact, the Mongol rulers took many steps to preserve the rituals, ceremonies, and the "flavor" of traditional Mongol life. For example, the ritual scattering of mare's milk was still performed every year; and before battle, libations of koumiss (alcoholic drink made of mare's milk) were still poured and the assistance of Tenggeri (the Sky God) still invoked. In fact, traditional Mongol shamanism was well supported, and shamans had positions at Kublai Khan's court in China.”

Daily Life and Ice as Depicted in a Yuan Dynasty Painting

In 2011, Epoch Times reported: “Dating from 147 A.D, Guangsheng Temple near Huoshan Mountain in China’s Shanxi province is renowned for its 13-story “Flying Rainbow Pagoda” and its murals which portray the local populace propitiating the Water God during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).” In June 2011, “the Chinese state mouthpiece Xinhua reported that a researcher had found evidence of refrigeration being used to preserve food. [Source: Epoch Times, June 21, 2011]

“One of the temple’s murals depicts a splendid mansion and the life within. Drawn on the palace hall’s northern wall, it portrays Chinese maidens carrying musical instruments and lotus flowers. The furniture and other accoutrements illustrate the pleasurable life enjoyed in that era. Chinese men avidly play "Xiangqi," an ancient game of Chess.

“What is surprising is that under a desk there was a wooden dipper containing fruits, with small cubes of ice placed between the edible delicacies. This painting was completed 670 years ago, showing that the people then already knew how to use ice to preserve food and enabling us, as modern people, to broaden our horizons.

“Ice was known and used in ancient cultures both in the East and the West. The Romans imported ice south from the Alps and Apennines and, considered a luxury, it sold in the city at high prices. The public also enjoyed cool waters in the public baths, since the cost of a private ice house would have been exorbitant.

“Ancient China, with her many mountains, not only used ice for cooling, but even invented snow shoes and ice sports such as sledding. The Qing Emperor Qianlong (d. 1799) was enamored of winter sports and supported the athletes and their training. Chinese ice cream is believed to have originated in 3000 B.C., a treat which didn’t arrive in Italy until after Marco Polo visited China.”

Peasants in Yuan-Dynasty China

sheep and goat by Zhao Mengfu

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongols gave strong support to the peasants and peasant economy of China, believing that the success of the peasant economy would bring in additional tax revenues and ultimately benefit the Mongols themselves.Relief measures — including tax remissions, as well as granaries for the storage of surplus grain — were thus provided for peasant farmers in North China, in the areas that had been devastated during the war between the Mongols and the Chinese. And early in their reign, in 1262, the Mongols prohibited the nomads' animals from roaming in the farmlands and thereby undermining the peasant economy. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]

“The Mongols also sought to help the peasants organize themselves and initiated a cooperative rural organization — a self-help organization comprising about 50 households under the direction of a village leader. These rural cooperatives had as their principle purpose the stimulation of agricultural production and the promotion of land reclamation. The village/cooperative leader had the task of guiding and helping his organization through everything from farming, planting trees, and opening up barren areas, to improving measures for flood control and increasing silk production. In addition, the cooperatives conducted a periodic census and assisted in surveillance over recalcitrant Chinese and other possible saboteurs of Mongol rule. They also served as a kind of charity granary to assist the unfortunate during poor harvests or droughts, providing food and other supplies to orphans, widows, and the elderly. The Mongols also devised a fixed system of taxation for the peasants. Rather than having to anticipate unpredictable and extraordinary levies, as in the past system they had much resented, peasants under the Mongol system could know exactly how much would be required of them.

“Perhaps the one area in which the Mongols did not much take into account the interests of the peasantry was labor obligations. During their rule the Mongols embarked on a series of extraordinary public works projects throughout China, including the extension of the Grand Canal to Daidu (present-day Beijing), a vast postal-station system, and the building of a capital city in Daidu. All these projects required vast investments of labor, and most of this labor was recruited from the peasantry. This policy became one that generated much animosity from the peasant ranks.”

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The Chinese peasants had suffered in the Song period. They had been exploited by the large landowners. The Mongols had not removed these landowners, as the Chinese gentry had gone over to their side. The Mongols had deprived them of their political power, but had left them their estates, the basis of their power. In past changes of dynasty the gentry had either maintained their position or been replaced by a new gentry: the total number of their class had remained virtually unchanged. Now, however, in addition to the original gentry there were about a million Mongols, for whose maintenance the peasants had also to provide, and their standard of maintenance was high. This was an enormous increase in the burdens of the peasantry.

“Two other elements further pressed on the peasants in the Mongol epoch—organized religion and the traders. The upper classes among the

Chinese had in general little interest in religion, but the Mongols, owing to their historical development, were very religious. Some of them and some of their allies were Buddhists, some were still shamanists. The Chinese Buddhists and the representatives of popular Taoism approached the Mongols and the foreign Buddhist monks trying to enlist the interest of the Mongols and their allies. The old shamanism was unable to compete with the higher religions, and the Mongols in China became Buddhist or interested themselves in popular Taoism. They showed their interest especially by the endowment of temples and monasteries. The temples were given great estates, and the peasants on those estates became temple servants. The land belonging to the temples was free from taxation.

“We have as yet no exact statistics of the Mongol epoch, only approximations. These set the total area under cultivation at some six million ch'ing (a ch'ing is the ideal size of the farm worked by a peasant family, but it was rarely held in practice); the population amounted to fourteen or fifteen million families. Of this total tillage some 170,000 ch'ing were allotted to the temples; that is to say, the farms for some 400,000 peasant families were taken from the peasants and no longer paid taxes to the state. The peasants, however, had to make payments to the temples. Some 200,000 ch'ing with some 450,000 peasant families were turned into military settlements; that is to say, these peasants had to work for the needs of the army. Their taxes went not to the state but to the army. Moreover, in the event of war they had to render service to the army. In addition to this, all higher officials received official properties, the yield of which represented part payment of their salaries. Then, Mongol nobles and dignitaries received considerable grants of land, which was taken away from the free peasants; the peasants had then to work their farms as tenants and to pay dues to their landlords, no longer to the state. Finally, especially in North China, many peasants were entirely dispossessed, and their land was turned into pasturage for the Mongols' horses; the peasants themselves were put to forced labour. On top of this came the exploitation of the peasants by the great landowners of the past. All this meant an enormous diminution in the number of free peasants and thus of taxpayers. As the state was involved in more expenditure than in the past owing to the large number of Mongols who were its virtual pensioners, the taxes had to be continually increased. Meanwhile the many peasants working as tenants of the great landlords, the temples, and the Mongol nobles were entirely at their mercy. In this period, a second migration of farmers into the southern provinces, mainly Fujian and Guangdong, took place; it had its main source in the lower Yangtze valley. A few gentry families whose relatives had accompanied the Song emperor on their flight to the south, also settled with their followers in the Canton basin.

Chinese Economy Under the Yuan Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”:“The many merchants from abroad, especially those belonging to the peoples allied to the Mongols, also had in every respect a privileged position in China. They were free of taxation, free to travel all over the country, and received privileged treatment in the use of means of transport. They were thus able to accumulate great wealth, most of which went out of China to their own country. This produced a general impoverishment of China. Chinese merchants fell more and more into dependence on the foreign merchants; the only field of action really remaining to them was the local trade within China and the trade with Indo-China, where the Chinese had the advantage of knowing the language.

“The impoverishment of China began with the flow abroad of her metallic currency. To make up for this loss, the government was compelled to issue great quantities of paper money, which very quickly depreciated, because after a few years the government would no longer accept the money at its face value, so that the population could place no faith in it. The depreciation further impoverished the people.

“Thus we have in the Mongol epoch in China the imposing picture of a commerce made possible with every country from Europe to the Pacific; this, however, led to the impoverishment of China. We also see the rising of mighty temples and monumental buildings, but this again only contributed to the denudation of the country. The Mongol epoch was thus one of continual and rapid impoverishment in China, simultaneously with a great display of magnificence. The enthusiastic descriptions of the Mongol empire in China offered by travellers from the Near East or from Europe, such as Marco Polo, give an entirely false picture: as foreigners they had a privileged position, living in the cities and seeing nothing of the situation of the general population.

Artisans and Merchants In Yuan Dynasty China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Traditionally, the Chinese prized the products produced by artisans — jades, bronzes, ceramics, porcelains — but did not accord the artisans themselves a high social status. The Mongols, on the other hand, valued crafts and artisanship immensely and implemented many policies that favored artisans. The benefits artisans gained from Mongol rule include freedom from corvée (unpaid) labor, tax remissions, and higher social status. Thus, artisanship reached new heights in the Mongol era. Spectacular textiles and porcelains were produced, and blue and white porcelains, a style generally associated with the Ming dynasty, were actually first developed during the Mongol era. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]

“Traditionally, merchants were accorded a relatively low social status in China. The Mongols, however, had a more favorable attitude toward merchants and commerce — their nomadic way of life, which is much reliant on trade with sedentary peoples, had caused them to recognize the importance of trade from the very earliest times. Thus, the Mongols worked to improve the social status of merchants and traders throughout their domains.

“In particular, the Mongols initiated the Ortogh, or merchant associations, that helped merchants who were in the business of long-distance trade. They also increased the availability of paper money and reduced some of the tariffs imposed on merchants. The result was an extraordinary increase of trade across and throughout Eurasia.”

Improved Status of Merchants and Artisans

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Under Mongol rule, merchants had a higher status than they had in traditional China. During their travels they could rest and secure supplies through a postal-station system that the Mongols had established. The postal-station system was, of course, originally devised to facilitate the transmission of official mail from one part of the empire to another. Set up approximately every 20 miles along the major trade routes and stocked with supplies of food, horses, and lodging, the stations were an incredible boon to all travelers, whether they were traveling for business or otherwise. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]

“Under the Mongols, merchants also had the benefit of not being faced with confiscatory taxation, as was the case during the rule of the traditional Chinese dynasties. Support for trade characterized not only Mongol policy in China but their policy throughout their domains. In Persia the Mongols granted higher tax breaks and benefits to traders in an effort to promote commerce. The Mongols even tried to introduce paper money into Persia — though this would become merely a failed experiment. Nonetheless, the attempt indicates the desire of the Mongols to provide additional assistance to traders. “The Mongols provided artisans with a higher status than was the case in many societies. Traditional Chinese officials, for example, had prized the goods made by craftsmen but accorded the craftsmen themselves a relatively low social status. The Mongols altered this perception of craftsmen and offered them special concessions and privileges In addition, the Mongols in China established a tremendous array of government offices to supervise the production of craft articles. About one half of the 80 agencies in the Ministry of Works during the Mongol era dealt with the production and collection of textiles. There were also offices for bronzes, and offices of gold and silver utensils.

Support for Merchants and Artisan in Yuan-Era China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “To further support trade and commerce, the Mongols established merchant associations, known as Ortogh, specifically to promote caravan trade over long distances. The Mongols recognized that the caravan trade across Eurasia was extraordinarily expensive for any single merchant. Often there would be as many as 70 to 100 men on each mission, and all had to be fed and paid and provided with supplies (including camels, horses, and so on) over a lengthy period of time. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ]

“Quite a number of the caravans simply did not make it, either because of natural disasters of one sort or another or plundering by bandit groups. Travelers, for example, mentioned coming across numerous skeletons, animal and human, on these routes. Because of the expense involved in such a disaster, just one such failed caravan could devastate an individual merchant's holdings.

“The Mongol solution to these concerns was the establishment of Ortogh — through which merchants could pool their resources to support a single caravan. If a caravan did not make it, no single merchant would be put out of business. The losses would be shared, as would any risks, and of course, profits when the caravans succeeded. The Mongols also provided loans to merchants at relatively low rates of interest, as long as they belonged to an Ortogh.

“The Mongols did not have their own artisan class in traditional times because they migrated from place to place and could not carry with them the supplies needed by artisans. They were thus dependent upon the sedentary world for crafts, and they prized artisans highly. For example, during Genghis Khan's attack on Samarkand, he instructed his soldiers not to harm any artisans or craftsmen. Craftsmen throughout the Mongol domains were offered tax benefits and were freed from corvée labor (unpaid labor), and their products were highly prized by the Mongol elite. The Mongol's extraordinary construction projects required the services of artisans, architects, and technocrats. When Ögödei, Genghis Khan's third son and heir, directed the building of the capital city at Khara Khorum, the first Mongol capital, or when Kublai Khan directed the building of Shangdu (also known as "Xanadu"), his summer capital, as well as the building of the city Daidu (the modern city of Beijing), all required tremendous recruitment of foreign craftsmen and artisans.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: 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; 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 August 2021

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