Key events: With fall of Southern Song Yuan dynasty  took control of whole China and China  was again under rule of one dynasty after fall of Tang in 907. But this time Kublai Khan had Mandate of Heaven who was an ethnic Mongol together with his elite. It was first foreign dynasty that controlled whole China and despite some tolerance only dynasty in which Han Chinese had lowest position.

Kublai Khan took also Chinese name and became Emperor Shizu. He was on Mongol throne since 1260 and declared himself an Emperor of China in 1271( when he already controlled significant Chinese territories)  and conquered remaining parts of Song China in 1279. He adopted Chinese governmental system and took some Han Chinese advisors into government in which Mongols were dominant. Kublai Khan tried to find some compromise in order to prevent Han and Mongol tension. Not only Han elite was angry because of lower power that they had but Mongol nobility too since they believed that Kublai Khan is giving too much compromise with Han Chinese. Capital became Dadu( in Mongol Khanbaliq) what is todays Beijing. It was first time that Beijing was capital of all China. Now Chinese empire had much bigger territory and included todays Mongolia, parts of Russia, whole North Korea, todays northeastern China, Xinjiang region and Tibet. This was first time that Tibet with some religious autonomy was completely part of China. Since the fall of Tibetan Empire in 10th century it was never a state again but different regions were governed by different lord.


Kublai Khan widely promoted trade, culture and science. After he strengthened government he started attracting foreign merchants and some new military campaigns. He expanded Grand Canal to Beijing. In 1281 he initiated large scale invasion on Japan. Large Mongol-Han fleet ( 3500 ships and 100 000 soldiers)  was moving towards Japanese isles but was destroyed by typhoon and therefore lost resources for other invasions on Japan. It was one of biggest disasters for Yuan dynasty. Kublai Khan launched attacks on Dai Viet, Champa, Burma and Java. Only launching attack on Burma was successful. Most severe defeat Kublais army experienced at Bach Dang( 1288) where they were defeated by Vietnamese.  Problem was that Mongol army wasn’t prepared for fighting war in tropical areas. Anyway Champa, Dai Viet and Burma accepted to be tributary vassals of Yuan China.  In 1294 Kublai Khan died and later years of  Yuan dynasty were not so glorious. Between 1294 and 1307 ruled Temur Khan( Emperor Chenzong). He was famous for accepting into administration on higher posts Han Chinese, Tibetans, Khitans, Koreans, Uighurs and other. He promoted Confucianism widely. Temur Khan also promoted good relations with Siam, Champa and Burma. He stopped invasive policies on Dai Viet and Japan. He also seated Zhengyi Taoists in Longhushan mountain and Quanzhen in White Cloud Temple in Beijing.  Despite promoting Confucian principles corruption was highly increasing like never before in Chinese history. He was succeeded by Kulug Khan( Emperor Wuzong) who ruled between 1307 and 1311 but he managed to do a lot of harm to China during his short reign. He led very luxurious life and spent too much on himself. Kulug Khan was printing as much money as he wanted without calculating consequences. Value of money started to drop and hyperinflation occurred. It was first inflation not only in history of China but in whole world. Currency devalued for 80% and it had severe impact on rich merchants. Living standard started to decline in all categories except in highest ones and public anger increased.

In 1332 Toghun Temur( Emperor Huizong) came to power and he was last emperor from Yuan dynasty. In state apparatus was present corruption, Emperor Huizong tried to conduct reforms but unsuccessfully. Trade incomes were not sufficient for recovering all situation and were not equally distributed. Moreover big drought what caused big shortage of food and famine started among peasants and later among other low or middle circles. In areas of Hoanghe and Yangtze started big floods which also destroyed crops. In north China little ice age started and frost damaged harvests. Millions of people died from famine. Also large epidemics of plague started what was real disaster and millions of people died  from it since plague was far from curable during that time. All these was showing people that Yuan dynasty doesn’t have “blessing of Heaven” anymore and that it is time for change. Peasant rebellions started in many parts of China. In 1351 Red Turban Rebellion started. It was initiated by secret and illegal White Lotus Sect ( Buddhist sect that was illegal even during previous dynasties). They started war against Yuan calling for overthrowing the dynasty. Red Turbans were defeated but their idea was kept and more people arouse against Yuan dynasty. Real civil war started and rebels were led by Zhu Yuanzang. He was originating from poor peasant family and was former Buddhist monk. Zhu Yuanzang defeated Yuan army in several battles and in 1368 captured Beijing. Yuan elite escaped and tried again in same year to recapture Beijing but it failed. With defeating Mongols Zhu Yuanzang  declared that he got Mandate of Heaven and became Emperor Hongwu. Emperor Hongwu claimed own new Ming dynasty and moved capital to Nanjing.  He was chasing Mongols until 1380ies into Manchuria where they retreated after that they escaped to Mongolia and formed Northern Yuan. Ming  was last ethnic Han dynasty of China and it will be written about it in next chapter.

State, Society and Culture: Despite short life of Yuan dynasty at beginning its economic success was big, institutions were strong and culture was flourishing.  Still many Chinese consider Yuan dynasty not as legitimate dynasty of China but a foreign invader since they were treated as second class citizens.

State system of government, imperial court and ministries was copied from Song dynasty. Kublai Khan established Censorate a special supervisory body was supposed to be eyes and ears of the emperor and detect corruption. There were several branches of Censorate. The Palace Branch was responsible for monitoring the behaviour of officials during audiences. The Admonish Branch was responsible for monitoring the behaviour of the emperor, to ensure that he did not make mistakes and remind him of his duties; it was staffed by equerry censors. The Detection Branch was responsible for monitoring the behaviour of local officials; monitor censors ) would tour the country in circuits to ensure the proper discharge of the functions of government and good performance of local officials.

Kublai Khan established system of governance same one as existed in Tang and Song dynasties and name of institutions had Chinese names. Main difference was that most of members in ministries were ethnic Mongols what was unfair when it comes to majority Han population. Very few high officials were Han Chinese. Even on middle positions most of people were Mongols. Han Chinese could  most often have low rank positions. Even educational system was changed in a way to make Han Chinese excluded and kept on bottom.

Administrative reforms were conducted this time. It was something innovative as they divided China on 11 provinces which were divided on circuits. Circuits were divided on prefectures, prefectures on sub-prefectures and subprefectures on counties. Such administrative division was later adopted by Ming and Qing dynasties.  Provinces were accountable to central secretariat( government). There was established Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs which was supposed to control Tibet. It was top level office that supervised bureaucratic and governmental issues over Tibet. It was composed of Mongols but also Tibetan envoys. It governed todays Tibet and parts of Sichuan, Qinghai and Kashmir where Tibetan ethnicity lived.

Social classes were same as during Tang and Song dynasties but there were divisions also on categories of citizens under basis of ethnic origin. There were 4 tiers of citizens that determined status more than belonging to class during Yuan era and was discriminative towards Han Chinese.  There were 4 main categories of population that were defined by Yuan dynasty: 1) Mongols- here belonged Mongol elite, army, Mongol merchants and Mongol peasants they took played role which Han population had during previous dynasties. They were minority but played as being majority population. 2) Semu- non-Mongols such as Uighurs, Tatars, Persians, Turkestani, Nestorian Christians, Jews, Tibetans. Here belonged all allies of Mongol Empire who fought on side with Mongol armies since they began invasions in 13th century. Also here belonged those who surrendered earlier to Mongols such as many Turkic groups so they enjoyed bigger trust and could participate on important positions. Also here belonged foreign merchants which were considered as important and were welcomed. 3) Were Han Chinese from Jin dynasty, Jurchens and Koreans. They were here because they surrendered before South Song and after Turkic people. They occupied some middle to lower positions in state. 4) Were Han Chinese of southern China that belonged to Song dynasty. They were here since Song dynasty surrendered last of all and therefore they were most mistrusted and occupied low positions or were excluded  from political life and had to pay higher taxes if wanted to participate in commerce. They could have own property and many wealthy merchants from South China actively participated in trade. So there were 2 categories of Han Chinese northern and southern based on date of surrender.

Imperial Academy Beijing, source:

Mongol elite considered Han Chinese as threat to their dominance and that’s why they adopted regulations to put them down and limit as much as possible their presence in society on important and influential positions. Even if wealthy Han Chinese could hardly be admitted on higher positions in state service. At beginning of 14th century in Beijing were built Confucius Temple and Imperial Academy. Since it was capital city it was considered as important to conduct imperial examinations there. But they were unfair towards Han Chinese since for them exams were prepared to be more difficult and they required more points in order to get accepted in imperial service.  For Tibet serfdom was typical and clerical elite was on top which was severely exploiting and punishing peasants.

Generally there is also idea  that ethnic group wasn’t crucial factor for determining position in society but date of surrender and when someone earlier surrendered was more trusted than those who later surrendered. Status of category didn’t determine someones wealth but position in political life. There were also very poor Mongol peasants who were same oppressed as poor Han peasants and more oppressed by own regime than wealthy Han.

Kublai Khan cared much about economic development and trade. He invested in expansion of Grand Canal towards Beijing in order to ease the connection and trade. He used slaves for that project that were hired part time until construction was finished what was typical practice in imperial China. Kublai Khan also supported all new industrial techniques that were used during Song dynasty but wasn’t boosting innovation but only maintenance of existing technologies. State held monopoly on salt while other things were both either in state or private hands. Kublai Khan created favorable conditions for trade and maintained open doors for foreigners via Silk Road. He eased conditions for Mongols and foreigners that were merchants by lowering taxes for them while he increased taxes for Han Chinese especially for those who lived in south but they still widely participated in trade. Silk Road which was reactivated since Tang dynasty and during Yuan still was very vibrant and vital artery between East and West.  Most famous foreign merchant of that time was Marco Polo an Italian from Venetian Republic.  In 13th century he came to China via Silk Road with his father and uncle. He was one of first Western Europeans who came to China. In 1266 his father and uncle while being in Levant were invited to meet Kublai Khan since he wanted to meet Europeans. They were warmly welcomed in Dadu( Beijing) and Kublai Khan asked them to bring him 100 educated Christians and oil lamp from Jerusalem. They returned to Venice and asked Marco to join them. They together went across Levant, Persia and Central Asia and arrived to Dadu in 1271. On the road they were attacked by bandits many times. Marco and his father and uncle brought him oil lamp and some Christians. They were very welcomed and given luxury and palace to enjoy there. There are even stories that Marco was a governmental advisor or personal advisor of Kublai Khan. There is even version that Marco was a governor of one Chinese city. He traveled a lot across China and came even to todays Burma. They took very dangerous journey on  Persian ship( Persian prince was ally of Kublai) on ship were 600 people and only 18 survived.  They returned back to Venice in 1295. There is a story that Marco while being in prison in Genova in 1298 retold to a storyteller his trips who wrote a book about Marcos trips and experiences. He for the first time told in Europe about printing machine, paper money, compass, noodles, ice cream and many other things that made him surprised as they were not known in Europe.

paper money, source:

Army was mostly Mongolian  but also had Chinese members who were either ordinary soldiers or low ranking officers but majority of soldiers and high ranking officers were Mongols or Semu. There were special army divisions in which only Han Chinese were soldiers and high ranking officers. They often appeared to be trustful and reliable for Yuan regime. Yuan army had used some technologies taken from Han such as gunpowder.

Inventions that were found in Tang and Song dynasties continued to be widely used during Yuan dynasty. Printing continued to be applied in printing books both in Chinese and Mongol languages. Main printing office was Library Directorate. Many ancient books and verses were printed and even translated to Mongol. Educational, medicine, historical, literal and religious works were printed widely and stored in many libraries. It was systematized and most printing houses were in Beijing. Printing paper money was also characteristic for Yuan dynasty. Discoveries in algebra appeared too. Many scientists and inventors were both Han Chinese and Mongols. Medicine also experienced advancements. As in other spheres of science and inventions Han Chinese experts were not discriminated here. Their knowledge of acupuncture, pulse measuring and their use of elixirs and herbs was widely respected and applied for healing even of imperial members. Yuan rulers promoted Chinese medicine abroad and were selling medical products and offering knowledge of Chinese medicine to the Middle East even.  Kublai Khan built Medical Academy in Beijing where he attracted Confucian scholars to learn medicine as he promised high income for doctors if they have true virtue. So physicians were considered as highly respected group of people. Also he promoted writing of Chinese medicine books but also Mongol medicine books. Mongol medicine was also studied and mostly various use of herbs and shamanistic rituals. Kublai brought physicians from Middle East to teach and spread their medicine. Also Kublai founded Office of Western Medicine where European physicians mostly Nestorians were working and teaching. Many medical brochures were published and were focusing on healthy lifestyle and diet.

Cities, canals, temples and palaces were widely built.

Arts were also very advanced during Mongol rule of China. Mixture of Mongol, Han Chinese and Muslim styles dominated. Painting was very developed both landscape painting and also calligraphy. Calligraphy was widely expanding among Mongols too. When it comes to poetry it was had specific development. Previously known styles from Han, Tang and Song dynasties were developing independently but also mixture of Mongol and Han poetry appeared. It created a special hybrid in poetry. Also Mongol poetry existed independently so basically 3 styles of poetry existed. Novels became very popular and most famous novel was written by Luo Guanzhong and it is known as Romance of 3 Kingdoms. This novel takes place during 3 Kingdoms Period. It both romanticizes and dramatizes lives of aristocrats and military commanders of 3 Kingdoms Period. It is first and one of biggest novels in history of China.

Drama and theatre develops. Dramas and operas were widely watched those of higher quality by richer in kind of opera and tea houses and those of lower quality , cheaper tea house or street performances by middle or poorer people.

In pottery new style appeared at beginning of XIV century. Glaze wares and vases were made in blue and white and from ceramic or porcelain. They were both made for domestic use but were exported everywhere from Japan to Italy. This style of blue and white porcelain pottery became most popular during Ming dynasty.

Yuan dynasty was very religiously diverse. Mongols widely accepted Tibetan Buddhism because of their close ties to Tibet and started to promote it over China. Many Tibetan temples were built.  Tibetan Buddhism significantly differs from Chan Buddhism. For example Tibetan Buddhism promotes strong relationship between teacher and disciple considering that disciple always must look on teacher as his idol. In Chan Buddhism it is more promoted that teacher opens you door but you enter by yourself. Also tantric practices similar to those in Zhengyi Taoism were popular in Tibetan Buddhism. During Yuan dynasty Chan Buddhism intersects more with Pure Land Buddhist Sect ( focuses on chanting name of Amituofo) and basically Pure Land Sect becomes fraction of Chan Buddhism. Many Tibetan scripts were translated to Chinese and Mongol. Confucian doctrine and scripts were translated to Mongolian too. Mongol shamanism was still practiced by Mongols who even followed Tibetan Buddhism. Islam was moderately spreading during Yuan era. Kublai Khan brought many Turkic Muslims to work as state administrators and many held middle or high governmental positions. Many Turkic Muslims inhabited areas of todays. Some of Muslim officials were in Beijing too. Arab and Persian merchants lived in coastal towns. Smaller number of Han Muslims appeared who started to be called Hui people. Hui lived in Qinghai, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia but also in other places.  In Quanzhou small minority of Hindu merchants lived.  Small Jewish communities existed too. Taoism was highly respected during Yuan dynasty. It wasn’t much promoted but enjoyed high status. Mongols sympathized Taoism since Genghis Khan. During his conquests notable Quanzhen Taoist scholar Qiu Chuiji visited Genghis Khan in Samarqand. It was one of most important meetings between Taoist and some powerful figure. Qiu told Genghis Khan about importance of compassion and respect. He persuaded Genghis Khan to stop persecuting civilians claiming that it is against way of nature. Thanks to his work and work of his sect during Kublai Khans conquest of China millions of lives were saved and sparred from execution. Kublai Khan granted a monastery in Beijing to be a center of Quanzhen sect. Zhengyi sect got own headquarters in Longhu Shan when Kublai Khan acknowledged their connection to lineage of Way of Celestial Masters. Christians were minority during Kublai Khan and belonged to second category of population. Only Muslims and Jews were partially discriminated since it was banned and severely punished to sacrifice goats and perform circumcision as Mongols considered it as cruel practices.

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, source:

In international relations when Kublai Khan stopped conquests he started to promote more peaceful policy. He was collecting tributes from Korean, Vietnamese, Burmese, Javanese vassals. He promoted good relations with Western Turkic khanates and sent there many high educated Han Chinese advisors to be in their governmental service. Also he sent Han Chinese slaves there to work on some projects.



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