Yuan Dynasty

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The Yuan Dynasty (Template:Ll: Dai Ön Yeke Mongghul Ulus; Template:Ll: 大元大蒙古帝国) lasting officially from 1271 to 1368, also called the Mongol Dynasty, was the name given to the significant ruling family of Borjigin in Asia. It invaded and ruled, during its hundred year life, over the Mongol Empire (Stretching great distances from Eastern Europe to the Middle-east to Russia), Korea and China. In the historiography of China, it followed the Song Dynasty and preceded the Ming Dynasty in China.


Birth of the Yuan

Founding an Empire

Timüjin, later to be more prominently known as Ghengis Khan, was the first in the line of Yuan rulers. He was the son of Yesügei, the tribal chief of the Kiyad — a tribe in a fractured Mongolia. His father was killed in his early life by a rival tribe, the Tartars — this rendered him chief of the Kiyad. Many in the tribe did not take well to a boy-ruler, abandoning him. He and his family were thus reduced to a state of abject poverty — however, at the age of 20 he met his future wife Börte, from whom he received a sable coat, his first semblance of power and wealth. He soon traded this coat for a small tribal army and joined the Kerait, a confederacy of Mongol tribes led by Wang Khan. After successful campaigns against the Tatars in 1202, Temüjin was adopted as Wang Khan's heir. This led to bitterness on the part of Senggum, Wang's former heir, who planned to assassinate Temüjin. Temüjin learned of Senggum's intentions however, and a large civil war broke out among the Mongols. Eventually Temüjin defeated Senggum and succeeded to the title of Wang Khan. Temüjin created a written code of laws for the Mongols called Yassa, and he demanded it to be followed very strictly.

Temüjin followed with attacks on other neighboring tribes, which further increased his power. By combining diplomacy, organization, military ability, and brutality, Temüjin finally managed to unite the tribes into the single nation, a monumental feat for the Mongols, who had a long history of internecine dispute. In 1206 Temüjin had successfully united the formerly fragmented tribes of what is now Mongolia. At a Khurultai (a council of Mongol chiefs), he was named the "Genghis Khan", or the "Universal Ruler". The birth of Mongolia marked the start of what would become the Yuan Dynasty, eventually ruling the expansive Mongol Empire, Russia and large parts of Asia for the following two centuries. Genghis Khan, with his skills in military strategy, continued the long Mongol tradition of attacking China proper with greater success than ever before, eventually building a powerful military machine with unity as support.

Aspirations to China

At the time of the Khuriltai Genghis was involved in a dispute with Western Xia — which eventually became the first of his wars of conquest. Despite problems in taking well defended Western Xia cities, he substantially reduced the Western Xia dominion by 1209, when peace with Western Xia was made. He was acknowledged by their emperor as overlord. This marks the first in a line of successes in Northern Chinese kingdoms which wasn't complete until Kublai Khan's rule. A major goal of Genghis was the conquest of the Jin Dynasty of China, both to avenge earlier defeats and to gain the riches of northern China. He declared war in 1211, and at first the pattern of operations against the Jurchen Jin Dynasty was the same as it had been against Western Xia. The Mongols were victorious in the field, but they were frustrated in their efforts to take major cities. In his typically logical and determined fashion, Genghis and his highly developed staff studied the problems of the assault of fortifications. With the help of Chinese engineers, they gradually developed the techniques that eventually would make them the most accomplished and most successful besiegers in the history of warfare.

As a result of a number of overwhelming victories in the field and a few successes in the capture of fortifications deep within China, Genghis had conquered and had consolidated Jin territory as far south as the Great Wall of China by 1213. He then advanced with three armies into the heart of Jin territory, between the Great Wall and the Huang He. He defeated the Jin forces, devastated northern China, captured numerous cities, and in 1215 besieged, captured, and sacked the Jin capital of Yanjing (later known as Beijing). The Jin emperor, Xuan Zong, however, did not surrender, but removed his capital to Kaifeng. There his successors finally were defeated, but not until 1234.

The vassal emperor of Western Xia had refused to take part in the war against the peoples of the Khwarizm, and Genghis had vowed punishment. While he was in Iran, Western Xia and Jin had formed an alliance against the Mongols. After rest and a reorganization of his armies, Genghis prepared for war against his foes. By this time, advancing years had led Genghis to prepare for the future and to assure an orderly succession among his descendants. He selected his third son Ögedei as his successor and established the method of selection of subsequent khans, specifying that they should come from his direct descendants. Meanwhile, he studied intelligence reports from Western Xia and Jin and readied a force of 180,000 troops for a new campaign.

Northern Conquest

In 1226, Genghis Khan attacked the Tanguts (Western Xia) on the pretext that the Tanguts received the Mongols' enemies. Over the next year he took the cities Heisui, Ganzhou, Suzhou, and Xiliang-fu — the Western Xia were finally defeated near Helanshan Mountain. He soonafter took Tangut city of Ling-zhou and the Yellow River — defeating the Tangut relief army. In 1227, Genghis Khan attacked the Tanguts' capital, and in February, he took Lintiao-fu. In March, he took Xining prefecture and Xindu-fu. In April, he took Deshun prefecture. At Deshun, the Western Xia General Ma Jianlong resisted the Mongols for days and personally led charges against them outside of the city gate. Ma Jianlong later died of arrow shots. On his deathbed in 1227, Genghis Khan outlined to his youngest son, Tolui, the plans that later would be used by his successors to complete the destruction of the Jin empire. The new Western Xia emperor, during Mongol attack, surrendered. The Tanguts officially surrendered in 1227, after being in existence for 190 years, from 1038 to 1227. The Mongols killed the Tangut emperor and his royal family members.

During the reign of Ögedei Khan, the Mongols completed the destruction of the Jurchen Jin empire (in 1234), coming into contact and conflict, during this time, with the Southern Song of China. In 1235, under the khan's direct generalship, the Mongols began a war of conquest that would not end for forty-five years. Mongol armies vassalized Korea (which was later used as a base for the two unsuccessful attempts to invade Japan, in 1274 & 1281), established permanent control of Persia proper (commanded by Chormagan) and, most notably, expanded westwards under the command of Batu Khan to subdue the Russian steppe. Their western conquests included almost all of Russia (save Novgorod, which became a vassal), Hungary, and Poland. Ögedei's death in 1241, caused by alcohol, brought the western campaign to a premature end. The commanders heard the news as they were advancing on Vienna, and withdrew for the kuriltai in Mongolia, never again to return so far west.

Not until Möngke Khan did any Khan take the conquest of China particularly seriously. Concerned himself more with the war in China, he outflanked the Song Dynasty through the conquest of Yunnan in 1253 and an invasion of Indochina, which allowed the Mongols to invade from north, west, and south. Taking command personally late in the decade, he captured many of the fortified cities along the northern front. These actions ultimately rendered the conquest a matter of time. He dispatched his brother Hülegü to the southwest, an act which was to expand the Mongol Empire to the gates of Egypt. European conquest was neglected due to the primacy of the other two theaters, but Möngke's friendliness with Batu Khan (with whom Güyük Khan had almost come to open warfare — only prevented from doing so by death) ensured the unity of empire. While conducting the war in China, Möngke fell ill of dysentery and died (in 1259), which aborted Hülegü's campaign, staved off defeat for the Song, and caused a civil war that destroyed the unity, and invincibility, of the Mongol Empire. His death gave rise to Kublai Khan, the first Yuan Emperor of China.

Golden Age of the Yuan

Establishment of the Yuan

Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, ascended to the Great Khanate, becoming the supreme leader of all Mongol tribes in 1260. He began his reign with great aspirations and self-confidence — in 1264 he moved the capital of the expansive Mongol Empire to Khanbaliq (Dàdū 大都, present-day Beijing), in recently acquired North China. He began his drive against the Southern Song, establishing, in 1271 — eight years prior to Southern conquest — the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China: the Yuan Dynasty. The creation of a dynasty prior to conquest, keeping in mind that Dynasty was not a Mongol concept, shows political and military tact. The name was significantly in Chinese — neither his native tongue, nor a language he spoke at all. In 1279, Guangzhou fell into Mongol hands, which marks the end of the Southern Song and the onset of China under the Mongols. During Kublai Khan's reign he was put under pressure by many of his advisers to further expand the Mongol Empire through the conquest of Japan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia, all of which later failed.

Due to the fact that Mongols have gathered a general negative attitude in China, Kublai's early rule may be noted for its bandit-like nature. As if expecting to lose the country, the Mongols attempted to remove as much money and resources as was possible. The Mongols imposed severe restrictions on trade, and spent vast amounts of Chinese money on projects such as the Forbidden Palace and the Grand Canal. Though many reforms were made during Kublai's life, and despite his notable warming to the populace, the Yuan are noted for their refusal to assimilate into China, or its culture. They remained, for their lifetime, foreign rulers, a characteristic often attributed as a cause to their downfall.

Before long, Kublai Khan began to serve as a true Emperor, reforming much of China and its institutions, a process which would take decades to complete. He, for example, insulated Mongol rule by centralizing the government of China — making himself (unlike his predecessors) an absolutist monarch. He reformed many other governmental and economic institutions, especially concerning taxation. Although the Mongols sought to govern China through traditional institutions, using Han Chinese bureaucrats, they were not up to the task. The Hans 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. This move aided the Yuan Dynasty by maintaining separation from China, but also fueled discontent among the Chinese population. In essence, the society was divided into four classes in order of privilege: Mongols, "Color-eyed" (Central Asians and small number of Europeans), Han (Han Chinese in northern China, Manchus and Jurchens), and Southerners (Han Chinese within Southern Song boundary and other ethnic groups). During his lifetime, Kublai developed the new Mongol capital, Khanbaliq, building the elaborate Forbidden Palace. He also improved the agriculture of China, developing the Grand Canal, highways and public granaries. Marco Polo described his rule as benevolent: relieving the populace of taxes in times of hardship; building hospitals and orphanages; distributing food among the abjectly poor. He also promoted science and religion.

Early Rule

Succession was a problem which marked the Yuan Dynasty, later causing much strife and internal struggle. This may be observed as early as the end of Kublai's reign. His original choice was his son, Zhenjin — but he died prior to Kublai in 1285. Thus, Zhenjin's son ruled as Emperor Chengzong of Yuan China for approximately 10 years following Kublai's death (between 1294 and 1307). Chengzong decided to maintain and continue many of the projects and much of the work begun by his grandfather. However, the corruption in the Yuan Dynasty began during the reign of Chengzong.

Emperor Wuzong of Yuan China ascended to the Emperorship of China following the death of Chengzong. Unlike his predecessor, he did not continue Kublai's work, but largely rejected it. During his short reign (1307 to 1311), China fell into financial difficulties, partly by bad decisions made by Wuzong. By the time he died, China was in severe debt and the Chinese people were discontent with the Yuan Dynasty.

The fourth Yuan emperor, Emperor Renzong of Yuan China was the last which may be seen as "successful": he stood out among the Mongol rulers of China as an adopter of the culture of China, to the discontent of the Mongol elite. He had been mentored by Li Meng, a Confucian academic. To the displeasure of Mongol nobility he made many reforms, including the liquidation of the Department of State Affairs (resulting in the execution of 5 of the highest ranking officials). Starting in 1313 examinations were introduced for prospective officials, testing their knowledge on significant historical works; in 1315 300 appointments went to Mongols, with an extra quarter of the positions being given to non-Chinese people. Also he codified much of the law.


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. Given the unified rule of central Asia, trades between East and West flourished. 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. 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. Advances were realized in the fields of travel literature, cartography, and geography, and scientific education. Certain key Chinese innovations, such as printing techniques, porcelain production, playing cards, and medical literature, were introduced in Europe, while the production of thin glass and cloisonne became popular in China. 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. The account of his travels, Il milione (or, The Million, known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo), appeared about the year 1299. The works of John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck also provided early descriptions of the Mongols to the West.

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. 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 food crop, sorghum, along with other foreign food products and methods of preparation.

Downfall of the Yuan

Civil Unrest

The last of the Yuan Dynasty were marked by successions of struggle, famine, and bitterness on behalf of the Chinese people. The dynasty was, significantly, one of the shortest lived dynasties in the History of China, covering the period of just a century 1271 to 1368. During this time they had been seen as "foreign rule". In time, Khubilai's successors became sinicized, and they then lost all influence on other Mongol lands across Asia. Where the Mongols saw them as too Chinese, the Chinese populace saw them as too Mongol. Gradually, they lost influence in China as well. For one, most of the emperors in the dynasty did not bother learning the language of the people, nor celebrate the culture over which they ruled. The reigns of the later Yuan emperors were short and were marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated from both their Mongolian army and their Chinese subjects. China was torn by dissension and unrest; bandits ranged the country without interference from the weakening Yuan armies.

Emperor Yingzong ruled for just two years (1321 to 1323); his rule ended in a coup at the hands of five princes. They placed Taidingdi on the throne, and after an unsuccessful attempt to calm the princes he also succumbed to regicide.

Loss of China

The last of the nine successors of Khubilai was expelled from Dadu in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), who was referred to as taizu. Although Zhu, who adopted Mongol military methods, drove the Mongols out of China, he did not destroy their power.

Northern Yuan

The Mongols retreated to Mongolia, where the Yuan Dynasty remained. It is now called the Northern Yuan by modern historians. According to Chinese political orthodoxy, there could be only one legitimate empire, and so the Ming and the Yuan each denied the legitimacy of the other. However, modern Chinese historians tend to regard the Ming dynasty as more legitimate.

Chinese called the Mongols "Tatar" (韃靼 dá dá) instead of "Mongol" (蒙古 méng gǔ), even though they called themselves "Mongghol". A Chinese army invaded Mongolia in 1380, and in 1388 a decisive victory was won. About 70,000 Mongols were taken prisoners, and Karakorum (the Mongol capital) was annihilated. Eight years after the invasion, the Mongol throne was taken over by Yesüder, a descendant of Arigh Bugha. After getting the Mongols through the turbulent period, he restored the throne to descendants of Kublai Khan.

The Mongols were greatly attacked by the Manchu in the 17th century. In 1634, Ligdan Khan, the last Great Khan of the Mongols, died on his way to Tibet. His son, Ejei Khan, surrendered to the Manchu and gave the great seal of the Yuan Emperor to its ruler, Hong Taiji. As a result, Hong Taiji established the Qing Dynasty as the successor of the Yuan Dynasty in 1636.


J. J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests (1971); M. Rossabi, Khubilai Khan (1988).

Related Articles

es:Dinastía Yuan fr:Dynastie Yuan ja:元 (王朝) nl:Yuan-dynastie pt:Dinastia Yuan fi:Yuan-dynastia sv:Yuandynastin zh:元朝


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