YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) AND THE MONGOLS IN CHINA

YUAN DYNASTY


Kublai Khan and Empress enthroned

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 the Song Dynasty capital of Hangzhou in 1276 and claimed China in 1279. The Mongol era in China is remembered chiefly for the rule of Kublai Khan. It was during this time that the capital of China was established in Beijing. The realm of Kublai was described in rich detail by Marco Polo.

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 ; 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.

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

20080216-1001gheghis ch pg.jpg 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.

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Rise of the Mongols in Chinese Realm

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: A new small league of tribes formed towards the end of the eleventh century, consisting mainly of Mongols and Turks. In 1139 one of the chieftains of the Jurchen rebelled and entered into negotiations with the South Chinese. He was killed, but his sons and his whole tribe then rebelled and went into Mongolia, where they made common cause with the Mongols. The Jin pursued them, and fought against them and against the Mongols, but without success. Accordingly negotiations were begun, and a promise was given to deliver meat and grain every year and to cede twenty-seven military strongholds. A high title was conferred on the tribal leader of the Mongols, in the hope of gaining his favour. He declined it, however, and in 1147 assumed the title of emperor of the "greater Mongol empire". This was the beginning of the power of the Mongols, who remained thereafter a dangerous enemy of the Jin in the north, until in 1189 Genghiz Khan became their leader and made the Mongols the greatest power of central Asia. In any case, the Jin had reason to fear the Mongols from 1147 onward, and therefore were the more inclined to leave the Song in peace. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In 1210 the Mongols began the first great assault against the Jin, the moment they had conquered the Xia. In the years 1215-17 the Mongols took the military key-positions from the Jin. After that there could be no serious defence of the Jin empire. There came a respite only because the Mongols had turned against the West. But in 1234 the empire finally fell to the Mongols.

“Many of the Jin entered the service of the Mongols, and with their permission returned to Manchuria; there they fell back to the cultural level of a warlike nomad people. Not until the sixteenth century did these Tunguses recover, reorganize, and appear again in history this time under the name of Manchus. The North Chinese under Jin rule did not regard the Mongols as enemies of their country, but were ready at once to collaborate with them. The Mongols were even more friendly to them than to the South Chinese, and treated them rather better.

Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), the Juchen and the Mongols

The Mongols defeated the Southern Song Dynasty in 1279 to claim China. But it took decades of fighting other steppe horsemen groups — namely the Jurchen and jin to achieve that goal. In 1126, the Jurchen invaded Song China and captured the Northern Song capital at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng). After that the Song court reestablished itself in the south in Hangzhou, where it continued to rule for another 150 years as the Southern Song dynasty.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The new state was much more solid than the southern kingdoms of 800 years earlier, for the south had already been economically supreme, and the great families that had ruled the state were virtually all from the south. The loss of the north, i.e. the area north of the Yellow River and of parts of Jiangsu, was of no importance to this governing group and meant no loss of estates to it. Thus the transition from the Northern to the Southern Song was not of fundamental importance. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“As the social structure of the Southern Song empire had not been changed, the country was not affected by the dynastic development. Only the policy of diplomacy could not be pursued at once, as the Jurchen were bellicose at first and would not negotiate. There were therefore several battles at the outset (in 1131 and 1134), in which the Chinese were actually the more successful, but not decisively. The Song had to accept the status of vassals and to pay annual tribute to the Jurchen. In 1165 it was agreed between the Song and the Jurchen to regard each other as states with equal rights. In spite of such agreements with the Jurchen, fighting continued, but it was mainly of the character of frontier engagements. Not until 1204 did the military party, led by Han T'o-wei, regain power; it resolved upon an active policy against the north. In preparation for this a military reform was carried out. The campaign proved a disastrous failure, as a result of which large territories in the north were lost. The Song sued for peace; Han T'o-wei's head was cut off and sent to the Jurchen. In this way peace was restored in 1208. The old treaty relationship was now resumed, but the relations between the two states remained tense. Meanwhile the Song observed with malicious pleasure how the Mongols were growing steadily stronger, first destroying the Xia state and then aiming the first heavy blows against the Jurchen. In the end the Song entered into alliance with the Mongols (1233) and joined them in attacking the Jurchen, thus hastening the end of the Jurchen state.

“The Song now faced the Mongols, and were defenceless against them. All the buffer states had gone. The Song were quite without adequate military defence. They hoped to stave off the Mongols in the same way as they had met the Khitan and the Jurchen. This time, however, they misjudged the situation. In the great operations begun by the Mongols in 1273 the Song were defeated over and over again. In 1276 their capital was taken by the Mongols and the emperor was made prisoner. For three years longer there was a Song emperor, in flight from the Mongols, until the last emperor perished near Macao in South China.

Mongol Invasions and the End of the Song Dynasty

20080216-attack horsemen u wash.jpg 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 /+/ ]

“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: /+/ ]

Kublai Khan and the Defeat of the Song Dynasty

20080216-kublaikhan osu.jpg 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 Realm and Foreign Rule Over China

According to the “Middle Ages Reference Library”: Under the forceful Kublai, lands from Korea to Central Asia to Vietnam bowed to the military power of the Yuan. Kublai did not annex all these countries, but made many of them vassals, regions that relied on Kublai for military protection. The unity of the Mongol realm facilitated travel through areas formerly dominated by bandits and competing warlords. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

“The Yuan were the first foreign ruling house in China's three-thousand-year history, and the Chinese resented them deeply. This had an unintended result. Rather than serve the "barbarians," many talented Chinese opted to become artists and educators rather than civil servants, and this led to a flowering in the arts. Yet the Yuan depended on the Chinese to run the country for them and did not return their neighbors' contempt toward them. Whereas the Chinese were accustomed to looking down on outsiders, the Mongols were some of the most open-minded people of the Middle Ages. Precisely because they lacked a sophisticated culture, they admired those of the peoples they ruled, and they admired no culture as much as that of China. Thus they were eager to absorb the refined ways of the Chinese, and this produced yet another unintended effect: in becoming more sophisticated, the Mongols lost the brutal toughness that had aided them in their conquests and so become vulnerable to overthrow. A series of failed invasions, both against Japan and Java, hastened the decline of Mongol power. Furthermore, the Mongols lacked the sheer numbers to truly dominate China: not only were the Chinese older and wiser, in terms of their civilization, they were also more numerous. As with their distant cousins the Huns before them, the Mongols soon faded into the larger population.

The Mongol conquest of the Song Dynasty marked the beginning of a long period of foreign rule over China. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Of the 631 years from 1280 to 1911, China was under national rulers for 276 years and under alien rule for 355. The alien rulers were first the Mongols, and later the Tungus Manchus. It is interesting to note that the alien rulers in the earlier period came mainly from the north-west, and only in modern times did peoples from the north-east rule over China. This was due in part to the fact that only peoples who had attained a certain level of civilization were capable of dominance. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, eastern Mongolia and Manchuria were at a relatively low level of civilization, from which they emerged only gradually through permanent contact with other nomad peoples, especially Turks. We are dealing here, of course, only with the Mongol epoch in China and not with the great Mongol empire, so that we need not enter further into these questions. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Yet another point is characteristic: the Mongols were the first alien people to rule the whole of China; the Manchus, who appeared in the seventeenth century, were the second and last. All alien peoples before these two ruled only parts of China. Why was it that the Mongols were able to be so much more successful than their predecessors? In the first place the Mongol political league was numerically stronger than those of the earlier alien peoples; secondly, the military organization and technical equipment of the Mongols were exceptionally advanced for their day. It must be borne in mind, for instance, that during their many years of war against the Song dynasty in South China the Mongols already made use of small cannon in laying siege to towns. We have no exact knowledge of the number of Mongols who invaded and occupied China, but it is estimated that there were more than a million Mongols living in China. Not all of them, of course, were really Mongols! The name covered Turks, Tunguses, and others; among the auxiliaries of the Mongols were Uighurs, men from Central Asia and the Middle East, and even Europeans. When the Mongols attacked China they had the advantage of all the arts and crafts and all the new technical advances of western and central Asia and of Europe. Thus they had attained a high degree of technical progress, and at the same time their number was very great.

Yuan Dynasty Rule


Mongol Empire divisions

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. *

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In foreign affairs the Mongol epoch was for China something of a breathing space, for the great wars of the Mongols took place at a remote distance from China and without any Chinese participation. Only a few concluding wars were fought under Kublai in the Far East. The first was his war against Japan (1281): it ended in complete failure, the fleet being destroyed by a storm. In this campaign the Chinese furnished ships and also soldiers. The subjection of Japan would have been in the interest of the Chinese, as it would have opened a market which had been almost closed against them in the Song period. Mongol wars followed in the south. In 1282 began the war against Burma; in 1284 Annam and Cambodia were conquered; in 1292 a campaign was started against Java. It proved impossible to hold Java, but almost the whole of Indo-China came under Mongol rule, to the satisfaction of the Chinese, for Indo-China had already been one of the principal export markets in the Song period. After that, however, there was virtually no more warfare, apart from small campaigns against rebellious tribes. The Mongol soldiers now lived on their pay in their garrisons, with nothing to do. The old campaigners died and were followed by their sons, brought up also as soldiers; but these young Mongols were born in China, had seen nothing of war, and learned of the soldiers' trade either nothing or very little; so that after about 1320 serious things happened. An army nominally 1,000 strong was sent against a group of barely fifty bandits and failed to defeat them. Most of the 1,000 soldiers no longer knew how to use their weapons, and many did not even join the force. Such incidents occurred again and again. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Yuan "Nationality Legislation" and the Division China’s Population

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Kublai, himself recognized that China could not be treated in quite the same way as the Mongols' previous conquests; he therefore separated the empire in China from the rest of the Mongol empire. Mongol China became an independent realm within the Mongol empire, a sort of Dominion. The Mongol rulers were well aware that in spite of their numerical strength they were still only a minority in China, and this implied certain dangers. They therefore elaborated a "nationality legislation", the first of its kind in the Far East. The purpose of this legislation was, of course, to be the protection of the Mongols. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The population of conquered China was divided into four groups—(1) Mongols, themselves falling into four sub-groups (the oldest Mongol tribes, the White Tatars, the Black Tatars, the Wild Tatars); (2) Central Asian auxiliaries (Naimans, Uighurs, and various other Turkish people, Tanguts, and so on); (3) North Chinese; (4) South Chinese. The Mongols formed the privileged ruling class. They remained militarily organized, and were distributed in garrisons over all the big towns of China as soldiers, maintained by the state. All the higher government posts were reserved for them, so that they also formed the heads of the official staffs. The auxiliary peoples were also admitted into the government service; they, too, had privileges, but were not all soldiers but in many cases merchants, who used their privileged position to promote business. Not a few of these merchants were Uighurs and Muslims; many Uighurs were also employed as clerks, as the Mongols were very often unable to read and write Chinese, and the government offices were bilingual, working in Mongolian and Chinese. The clever Uighurs quickly learned enough of both languages for official purposes, and made themselves indispensable assistants to the Mongols. Persian, the main language of administration in the western parts of the Mongol empire besides Uighuric, also was a lingua franca among the new rulers of China.

“In the Mongol legislation the South Chinese had the lowest status, and virtually no rights. Intermarriage with them was prohibited. The Chinese were not allowed to carry arms. For a time they were forbidden even to learn the Mongol or other foreign languages. In this way they were to be prevented from gaining official positions and playing any political part. Their ignorance of the languages of northern, central, and western Asia also prevented them from engaging in commerce like the foreign merchants, and every possible difficulty was put in the way of their travelling for commercial purposes. On the other hand, foreigners were, of course, able to learn Chinese, and so to gain a footing in Chinese internal trade. Through legislation of this type the Mongols tried to build up and to safeguard their domination over China. Yet their success did not last a hundred years.

Sinicization of the Mongol Leaders


Yuan Empress

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 \=/]

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


Grand Canal was completed by Kublai Khan

The Mongols encouraged trade and increased the use of paper money. The Grand Canal was greatly improved , and a system of relay stations ensured safe travel. Many European missionaries and merchants, including Marco Polo, came to the Mongol court. 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.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The transport system taken over by the Mongols had not been created for long-distance traffic The capital of the Song had lain in the main centre of production. Beijing was far away. Consequently, a great fleet had suddenly to be built, canals and rivers had to be regulated, and some new canals excavated. This again called for a vast quantity of forced labour, often brought from afar to the points at which it was needed.

20080317-1014_irrigation3 yellow rive dykes columb22.jpg
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.

Uprisings Against the Yuan Dynasty

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. 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.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “ The first popular uprising came in 1325. Statistics of 1329 show that there were then some 7,600,000 persons in the empire who were starving; as this was only the figure of the officially admitted sufferers, the figure may have been higher. In any case, seven-and-a-half millions were a substantial percentage of the total population, estimated at 45,000,000. The uprisings that now came incessantly were led by men of the lower orders—a cloth-seller, a fisherman, a peasant, a salt smuggler, the son of a soldier serving a sentence, an office messenger, and so on. They never attacked the Mongols as aliens, but always the rich in general, whether Chinese or foreign. Wherever they came, they killed all the rich and distributed their money and possessions. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“As already mentioned, the Mongol garrisons were unable to cope with these uprisings. But how was it that the Mongol rule did not collapse until some forty years later? The Mongols parried the uprisings by raising loans from the rich and using the money to recruit volunteers to fight the rebels. The state revenues would not have sufficed for these payments, and the item was not one that could be included in the military budget. What was of much more importance was that the gentry themselves recruited volunteers and fought the rebels on their own account, without the authority or the support of the government. Thus it was the Chinese gentry, in their fear of being killed by the insurgents, who fought them and so bolstered up the Mongol rule.

“In 1351 the dykes along the Yellow River burst. The dykes had to be reconstructed and further measures of conservancy undertaken. To this end the government impressed 170,000 men. Following this action, great new revolts broke out. Everywhere in Henan, Jiangsu, and Shandong, the regions from which the labourers were summoned, revolutionary groups were formed, some of them amounting to 100,000 men. Some groups had a religious tinge; others declared their intention to restore the emperors of the Song dynasty. Before long great parts of central China were wrested from the hands of the government. The government recognized the menace to its existence, but resorted to contradictory measures. In 1352 southern Chinese were permitted to take over certain official positions. In this way it was hoped to gain the full support of the gentry, who had a certain interest in combating the rebel movements. On the other hand, the government tightened up its nationality laws. All the old segregation laws were brought back into force, with the result that in a few years the aim of the rebels became no longer merely the expulsion of the rich but also the expulsion of the Mongols: a social movement thus became a national one. A second element contributed to the change in the character of the popular uprising. The rebels captured many towns. Some of these towns refused to fight and negotiated terms of submission. In these cases the rebels did not murder the whole of the gentry, but took some of them into their service. The gentry did not agree to this out of sympathy with the rebels, but simply in order to save their own lives. Once they had taken the step, however, they could not go back; they had no alternative but to remain on the side of the rebels.

Last Mongol-Yuan Emperors


Toghon Temur

After Kublai Khan's death in 1294, grandsons and great-grandsons of his followed each other in rapid succession on the throne; not one of them was of any personal significance. They had no influence on the government of China. Their life was spent in intriguing against one another. There were seven Mongol emperors after Kublai.

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.

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.” ^^

Uprising That Led to the Overthrow the Yuan Dynasty

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.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In 1352 Kuo Tzuhsing rose in southern Henan. Kuo was the son of a wandering soothsayer and a blind beggar-woman. He had success; his group gained control of a considerable region round his home. There was no longer any serious resistance from the Mongols, for at this time the whole of eastern China was in full revolt. In 1353 Kuo was joined by a man named Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yuan-chang), the son of a small peasant, probably a tenant farmer. Zhu's parents and all his relatives had died from a plague, leaving him destitute. He had first entered a monastery and become a monk. This was a favourite resource—and has been almost to the present day—for poor sons of peasants who were threatened with starvation. As a monk he had gone about begging, until in 1353 he returned to his home and collected a group, mostly men from his own village, sons of peasants and young fellows who had already been peasant leaders. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Monks were often peasant leaders. They were trusted because they promised divine aid, and because they were usually rather better educated than the rest of the peasants. Zhu at first also had contacts with a secret society, a branch of the White Lotus Society which several times in the course of Chinese history has been the nucleus of rebellious movements. Zhu took his small group which identified itself by a red turban and a red banner to Kuo, who received him gladly, entered into alliance with him, and in sign of friendship gave him his daughter in marriage. In 1355 Kuo died, and Zhu took over his army, now many thousands strong. In his campaigns against towns in eastern China, Zhu succeeded in winning over some capable members of the gentry. One was the chairman of a committee that yielded a town to Zhu; another was a scholar whose family had always been opposed to the Mongols, and who had himself suffered injustice several times in his official career, so that he was glad to join Zhu out of hatred of the Mongols.

“These men gained great influence over Zhu, and persuaded him to give up attacking rich individuals, and instead to establish an assured control over large parts of the country. He would then, they pointed out, be permanently enriched, while otherwise he would only be in funds at the moment of the plundering of a town. They set before him strategic plans with that aim. Through their counsel Zhu changed from the leader of a popular uprising into a fighter against the dynasty. Of all the peasant leaders he was now the only one pursuing a definite aim. He marched first against Nanking, the great city of central China, and captured it with ease. He then crossed the Yangtze, and conquered the rich provinces of the south-east. He was a rebel who no longer slaughtered the rich or plundered the towns, and the whole of the gentry with all their followers came over to him en masse. The armies of volunteers went over to Zhu, and the whole edifice of the dynasty collapsed.

Mongol Collapse and End of the Yuan Dynasty

Rivalry among the Mongol imperial heirs and numerous peasant uprisings contributed to the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. The last years of Mongol rule were marked by famines and other natural disasters, which the Chinese took as a sign that their rulers had lost what they called the "Mandate of Heaven"—in other words, the favor of the gods. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was founded by a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk turned rebel army leader. 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.

The end of the Yuan Dynasty is celebrated in China with moon cakes and the Mid-Autumn Festival. 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.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The years 1355-1368 were full of small battles. After his conquest of the whole of the south, Zhu went north. In 1368 his generals captured Beijing almost without a blow. The Mongol ruler fled on horseback with his immediate entourage into the north of China, and soon after into Mongolia. The Mongol dynasty had been brought down, almost without resistance. The Mongols in the isolated garrisons marched northward wherever they could. A few surrendered to the Chinese and were used in southern China as professional soldiers, though they were always regarded with suspicion. The only serious resistance offered came from the regions in which other Chinese popular leaders had established themselves, especially the remote provinces in the west and south-west, which had a different social structure and had been relatively little affected by the Mongol regime. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Thus the collapse of the Mongols came for the following reasons: (1) They had not succeeded in maintaining their armed strength or that of their allies during the period of peace that followed Kublai's conquest. The Mongol soldiers had become effeminate through their life of idleness in the towns. (2) The attempt to rule the empire through Mongols or other aliens, and to exclude the Chinese gentry entirely from the administration, failed through insufficient knowledge of the sources of revenue and through the abuses due to the favoured treatment of aliens. The whole country, and especially the peasantry, was completely impoverished and so driven into revolt. (3) There was also a psychological reason. In the middle of the fourteenth century it was obvious to the Mongols that their hold over China was growing more and more precarious, and that there was little to be got out of the impoverished country: they seem in consequence to have lost interest in the troublesome task of maintaining their rule, preferring, in so far as they had not already entirely degenerated, to return to their old home in the north. It is important to bear in mind these reasons for the collapse of the Mongols, so that we may compare them later with the reasons for the collapse of the Manchus.

Image Sources: Genghis and Kublai Khan, Ohio State University; Mongol cavalry attack, Washington University; Mongol actor, Brooklyn College; 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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