Elizabeth ENDICOTT

Gateway called Kuo-chieh-t’a (“Tower which Bestrides the Road,” also known as the “Cloud Terrace”), in Hebei Province. Inscribed with date corresponding to 1345, during the Yuan dynasty. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

In the late thirteenth century the Mongols, nomadic invaders from Central Asia, conquered China. During their rule as the Yuan dynasty the Mongols borrowed extensively from other traditions, creating a uniquely multicultural political and cultural environment. While many aspects of Mongolian rule over China vanished with the dynasty in 1368, some political, military and social features survived and influenced succeeding dynasties.

The Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) marked the first era in Chinese history in which Central Asian invaders succeeded in conquering all of China territorially. Mongolian tribes, reorganized into military units by the famed conqueror Chinggis Khan (also known as Genghis Khan, 1162–1227), descended upon China in repeated campaigns from the early years of the thirteenth century until the conquest process ended with the collapse of the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) under Chinggis’s grandson, Khubilai Khan (1215–1294). North China had been ruled by other invaders from the north (first the Khitans, then the Jurchens) from 916 to 1234, but the Mongols were the first outsiders to conquer and reunify all of China.

After Chinggis Khan’s death, his heirs carved out separate imperial domains (khanates) that, while connected by trade and diplomacy, evolved into independent geopolitical units. In addition to the Yuan dynasty in China, these units consisted of the Il-Khan dynasty in Persia, the Golden Horde in Russia, and the Chagatai khanate in Central Asia. The Yuan dynasty in China was directly ruled by a branch of Chinggis Khan’s descendants who were based in the Yuan capital city of Daidu (modern Beijing). As such, the Yuan dynasty was an independent polity that was governed quite differently from the other Mongolian-ruled polities in Eurasia.

The Mongols as Rulers of China

After the fall of the Yuan dynasty the new Ming rulers of China castigated the Mongols for their inattention to the welfare of the people and for their abuses of privilege. The Mongols, in fact, did rule China differently than previous dynasties had. As a pastoral nomadic people, they relied on their traditional emphasis on military values and hereditary transmission of office. Yet the Mongols also adapted many preexisting Chinese institutions to facilitate their rule. The structure of the Yuan civilian bureaucracy fit the traditional Chinese mold to a high degree, but the fact that Mongols and Western and Central Asians (Turks, Uygurs, Persians, and others) held the higher-level positions meant that many Chinese scholars, accustomed to the status derived from government service, felt disenfranchised.

The Yuan rulers did not allow the traditional Chinese civil examination system, which had determined who entered into the civilian bureaucracy in previous centuries, to function until 1315; even then it was a minor source of recruitment. The Mongolian emphasis on heredity and the primacy given to the military sphere over the civilian sphere made government service less accessible and even unpalatable for many Chinese.

However, the Chinese viewed the Yuan dynasty as a legitimate dynasty that had won the Mandate of Heaven and had reunified the empire. Khubilai Khan was largely responsible for winning Chinese acceptance of Mongolian rule. In 1272, Khubilai gave the dynasty its Chinese name, Yuan, and employed several prominent Chinese scholars as advisers at his court in Daidu (Dadu). Khubilai also selected this site (modern-day Beijing) in 1260 as the dynasty’s capital, thereby moving the symbolic center of Mongolian rule from Mongolia into China proper.

Khubilai also employed Tibetan Buddhist monks and Central Asian Muslim financiers as his court advisers. A multiethnic, multilingual entourage gave the Yuan court a cosmopolitan aura. Yet, from the point of view of contemporary Chinese observers, the Tibetans at the Yuan court were seen as arrogantly interfering with the administration of justice and claiming privileged status for themselves; Muslim financial advisers were criticized for imposing too severe a tax burden on the Chinese people and were accused of usury and embezzlement. While such criticisms may have been exacerbated by the factions at the Yuan court, it is true that the Tibetans and Central Asians rarely displayed any philosophical interest in Confucianism and its values of frugality and loyal, selfless service to one’s ruler. Tensions ran high among the different ethnic groups that served the Yuan court during Khubilai’s reign and in later Yuan times.

Culture and Society

Blocked from government service and alienated from their Mongolian rulers, some Chinese literati turned to the arts as an outlet for their untapped energies and talents. Popular drama, a genre that had existed in China for at least two centuries prior to the Mongolian invasion, benefited from the elite’s participation in the writing of new plays. Displaced from their usual roles as scholar-officials, the Chinese elite developed Yuan drama, known as zaju, which exposed social problems of the era, thus allowing modern readers precious insights into everyday life. At least 160 Yuan plays are extant. The Yuan era also produced many great Chinese painters, some of whom, like Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), served the Yuan court in official capacities. Since the Yuan rulers for the most part did not scrutinize or censor artistic themes, Chinese painting of this era flourished both stylistically and thematically, one example being the new focus on horse painting.

While Confucianism as a philosophy and way of life was never directly threatened with suppression by the Mongolian rulers of China, competing philosophies were encouraged in the Yuan period. Uygurs reintroduced Islam, Tibetans promoted Buddhism, and Central Asian monks revived Nestorian Christianity. The Mongol rulers practiced religious toleration in China and elsewhere throughout Eurasia; they exempted the clergy of all religions from taxation and from military conscription. As long as clerics did not foment or support anti-Mongolian sentiments, their churches, temples, and mosques were left untouched. In spite of the coexistence of a variety of religions in China in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, the Chinese elite remained strongly bonded to their own Confucian tradition. Overall during the Yuan, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, and the Mongols’ own shamanistic beliefs managed to weather the inevitable strains and mutual antagonisms of a multiethnic empire, giving the Yuan a rather unique cultural profile in Chinese history.

Trade, Transport, and the Economy

The Mongols, like other pastoral nomadic peoples of Eurasia, saw trade with neighboring sedentary peoples as an acceptable method to obtain needed goods to supplement the products of their own economy. Trade and raids coexisted in the frontier history of China and Central Asia. Chinggis Khan had employed Muslim merchants in long-distance trading ventures as early as 1218 in western Central Asia. By the generation of his grandson, Khubilai, the Yuan imperial family was experienced in world trade. Investing silver in Central Asian Muslim merchant companies that financed trade caravans to distant lands and loaned funds within China at usurious rates, Khubilai and his successors reaped enormous profits. Maritime trade also flourished in Yuan times, and the government treasury was enriched by trade taxes.

Within China itself, trade and communications were facilitated by the more than 1,400 government postal stations which allowed authorized officials and merchants to cover great distances in a short span of time, with fresh mounts supplied at each station. Using some 3 million conscripted laborers and an enormous expenditure of government funds, Khubilai Khan extended the Grand Canal so that grain from the Yangzi (Chang) River region could be shipped north to the Yuan capital at Daidu. Both land and inland waterway transport routes were improved in the Yuan era.

Paper currency had been in circulation to varying degrees in China before the Yuan dynasty, but during Khubilai Khan’s reign it became more widespread than ever. Taxes were paid in paper money, and merchants saw the advantages of the new currency. The Yuan court, however, never completely resisted the temptation to print more money when revenue demands generated by military campaigns of expansion and by fiscal mismanagement arose. Ultimately, inflation was one of the economic factors that contributed to the collapse of the dynasty in 1368.


During Khubilai’s reign, the Mongols continued their campaigns outward from China, successfully subjugating Korea. Their naval attacks upon Japan in 1274 and 1281, however, were defeated. Mongolian military expeditions into Southeast Asia in the 1270s and 1280s also met stiff resistance. After Khubilai’s reign, the Yuan rulers abandoned further expansionist campaigns. The dynasty fell into decline during the course of the fourteenth century because the once-powerful military could not suppress widespread popular revolts after 1350. The last decades of the Yuan dynasty were marred by major floods, droughts, and epidemics, creating a confluence of natural disasters that would have undermined any dynasty, whether foreign or Chinese in origin. The Mongols fled their capital city of Daidu and returned to Mongolia in 1368, escaping before the arrival of the armies of Zhu Yuanzhang, a rebel leader who founded the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Although a short-lived dynasty, the Yuan left a strong imprint upon Chinese society, military practices, and politics as evidenced by the post-Yuan continuation of hereditary household occupational registration, the continuation of aspects of military organization, and ultimately an expanded notion of what constituted “China” territorially.

Further Reading

Franke, H. & Twitchett, D. (Eds.). (1994). The Cambridge history of China. Volume 6. Alien regimes and border states. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Langlois, J. D., Jr. (Ed.) (1981). China under Mongol rule. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Latham, R. (Trans.) (1980). The travels of Marco Polo. New York: Penguin.

Rossabi, M. (1988). Khubilai Khan. His life and times. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ruthlessness is key to a man’s accomplishment.


Wú dú bú zhàng fu

Source: Endicott, Elizabeth. (2009). Yuan Dynasty. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2599–2602. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Yuan Dynasty (Yuán Cháo 元朝)|Yuán Cháo 元朝 (Yuan Dynasty)

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