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Chinese Dynasties
Yuan Dynasty
Yuan Dynasty
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Yuan Dynasty (1280~1368)

98 Years, 11 Emperors


      Centuries and centuries ago, the plateau and the desert to the north of China, known to the world as Mongolia, were dominated by small separate tribes of nomadic hunters and herders.  It is hard to imagine these nomads conquering and pillaging almost a third of the whole world and establishing the largest empire mankind has ever seen, but that was precisely what they did; even China, one of the most powerful nations at the time, fell before the invading armies of the Greater Mongolia, giving rise to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, one of the largest shortest-lived dynasties in the history of China, and also one of the only two that was ruled by foreign powers. 

      The person most responsible for the rise of the Yuan Dynasty is probably Timuchin, more commonly known as Genghis Khan.  Although he did not initiate the Yuan Dynasty, he was accountable for the unification of the separate Mongolian tribes and forming an efficient army of conquest that was later used to exterminate the previous dynasties in China.  He was the son of Yesugei, the chief of the Kiyad tribe, and gained command of a small army after the death of his father.  With his newly acquired fighting force, he joined the forces of the Keriat tribe, lead by Wang Khan, and was made the heir of Wang Khan in 1202 after he proved himself in several successful campaigns against the Tartars.  Four years later, in 1206, he united the tribes of the Mongolian Plateau and the Gobi Desert, and was elected by the council of Mongol chiefs as the leader of Greater Mongolia and was given the title ‘Genghis Khan’, meaning ‘Universal Ruler’.  Soon after, he successfully defeated Western Xia in a number of battles, until finally he was acknowledged by the emperor of Western Xia as the overlord, and a temporary state of peace was declared.  Soon afterwards, Genghis Khan set his eyes upon the Chin Dynasty, but for two years, he was unable to advance into Chin territory.  Finally, the stalemate was broken, and the Mongolian horde pushed the Chin forces to as far as the Great Wall, and in 1214, Beijing, the future capital of the Yuan Dynasty, was captured.  However, while Genghis Khan was away on conquest in Iran, Western Xia and Chin plotted a treacherous scheme to backstab the Mongolian Empire.  When Genghis Khan found out about this, he annihilated the Western Xia in 1227, and his successor Ogedei Khan completed the devastation of the Chin Dynasty.  Not content with the destruction of a single dynasty, Ogedei Khan declared war on the Southern Song Dynasty, made Korea a Mongolian vassal, controlled Persia, and conquered lands as far west as Russia, Hungary, and Poland.  After alcohol claimed Ogedei Khan’s life in 1241, the Mongol advancement into the west was halted.  The following khans did not take the conquest of China seriously, until Möngke Khan, who resumed the conquest of the Southern Song Dynasty and Indochina, and succeeded in capturing several major cities.  Unfortunately, he died prematurely of dysentery, leaving Southern Song undefeated and the invincible Mongol Empire in pieces in chaos.  This was when Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson and the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, ascended the throne.

      When Kublai Khan was named the Great Khan in 1260, the Mongolian Empire already had control of North China, Persia, Central Asia, Russia, and parts of the Middle East.  In 1264, he moved the imperial capital to Beijing, or Dadu as it was known at the time, much to the discontentment of his Mongol advisors.  Also known Emperor Shizu, he established the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, and continued to expand his empire southward into Song territory.  Finally, in 1279, the Mongols successfully captured Hangzhou, the capital of Southern Song, and took the imperial family into captivity.  The fall of Southern Song marked the beginning of the new Yuan Dynasty, one of the briefest dynasties in the Chinese history.  Although Kublai Khan was a skilled military leader, he was not quite adept at politics and law.  Hence, during the first few years of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols ruled as bandits, looting and pillaging, until Kublai Khan decided to follow the Han Chinese political and court system, and assumed the roles of emperors.  However, the Mongol Khans failed to unite the vast variety of their subjects; matters were further worsened when they divided the people into four social classes; the Mongols, of course, were the elite, followed by the “colored eyes”, which included non-Chinese Central Asians and Europeans.  The Hans, including the Northern Han Chinese, Manchus, and Jurchens, were ranked under the “colored eyes”, and the Southerners were at the bottom of the list, including Southern Song Hans and other ethnic groups.  What made matters even worse was that the Mongols refused to be assilimilated into the Chinese culture and learn its language, therefore, the upper echelon, which consists of Mongols, can only communicate with their Chinese subjects through translators.  Also, Kublai Khan took the honor of finishing what the Tang Emperors started; he secured his position as an autocratic ruler.  Furthermore, Mongols and other foreigners were giving government positions, much to the displeasure of the Chinese.

      Although one might think life under Mongol rule was miserable, galloping all day long through the cities wearing fur coats under the sun, that was not the case.  Because the Mongols refused to grant educated Chinese a seat in the government, they diverted their attention to arts, music, and literature, which flourished during the Yuan Dynasty.  The Mongols in particular enjoyed Chinese drama, which developed into the modern Chinese drama under their rule.  The style of drama favored at the time was Northern drama, unsurprisingly, and has sophisticated costume design, exaggerated actions, operatic voices, and pasty-looking face painting.  There were more than two hundred well-known playwrights at the time, and the most famous of them include Guan Han-Ching and Wang Shipu.  Some of the most distinguished works in the dynasty includes “Snow in Midsummer”, “The Western Chamber”, “Moon Worship Pavillion”, and “The Tale of the Lute”.  The Yuan Dynasty was also an important dynasty for Chinese novels; two of the most well known novels were written at that time, “The Water Margin” and the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, or “Shui-Hu Chuan” and “San-Kuo Yen Yi” in Chinese.  These titles are known to nearly all the Chinese and Taiwanese population. 

      There were also a number of great achievements during the Yuan Dynasty, particularly the famed Forbidden City, where all the succeeding emperors reside.  Trade between the East and the West was also vastly improved, such nearly all of Asia was under one central ruler.  With more contacts between the East and the West, both China and Europe were able to gain further understanding on one another’s culture, and foreign relations improved vastly; this was also the dynasty in which Marco Polo visited China.  Also, the Mongols were not the complete barbarians people claimed; there were great progressions in the fields of literature, geography, and cartography, and the list does not end there.  Religions were practiced freely, and there was a vast diversity of religions under the Mongol rule.  A large number of Chinese consider the Yuan Dynasty to be one of the bleakest in the Chinese history, but that might have been because of the prejudice toward foreigners.  Especially the nomadic and ‘barbaric’ Mongolians. 

      Although the Mongolians conquered all of China, they were not at peace even after the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty.  In 1268, Kublai Khan turned his eyes on Japan, sending a letter for Japan to become a vassal of the Mongolian Empire or be beaten to a pulp.  The Japanese was willing to set the pride aside and accept the terms, but its military refused, and the letter was ignored.  Furious, Kublai Khan launched a massive military invasion in November, 1274, consisting of 900 vessels carrying over 40,000 troops from bases in Korea.  The Tsushima and Iki Islands were reduced to cinders, and the Mongolian army successfully landed at Hakata Bay on November 18th.  The Japanese were no match for Mongolian cavalry armed with small explosives, and had to retreat to a nearby fortress.  That night, the Mongolians were almost wiped out by a sudden storm, known by the Japanese as the Kamikaze.  The invades had no choice but to retreat in defeat.  However, the Mongolians had no understanding of the word ‘defeat’, and in 1281, they returned for a rematch with 4400 ships carrying 142,000 troops.  This time, the Japanese were ready and gave them a warm welcome.  When the expeditionary force of 42,000 men landed in Hakata Bay, they encountered heavy fortifications.  Although the Mongolians, armed with explosives and heavy longbows that fire twice as far as the Japanese counterparts, worked as a team while the Japanese fought as individuals, they could not penetrate the fortifications.  Two month later, they retreated to the sea to rendezvous with the 100,000-men reinforcement at Takashima.  The Japanese emperor called once again on divine powers to help them repel the imminent threat, and miraculously, a second kamikaze struck in the form of a typhoon, killing over 100,000 invaders.  This time, the Mongolians did not return for a rematch. 

      “What goes up must come down”; the Yuan Dynasty had not even seen its hundredth year before its fall.  In its final days, famines, political struggles, and bitterness of the people to be ruled by foreigners caused the population to be extremely discontent with the government.  After years of relative peace, the once-mighty cavalry grew feeble, and the Mongolians accused the Yuan government of being too Chinese, whereas the Chinese found them to be too Mongolian; therefore, they lost their influence in both China and Mongolia.  From 1300 to 1368, there had been continuous rebellions by the White Lotus Society, White Cloud Society, and the Red Turbans, lead by a peasant named Zhu Yuanzhang, but it was not until 1368 did the rebels successfully drive out the Mongols from China and established the Ming Dynasty.  











Religion and Philosophy

      When the Mongols took control of China, they did not forcefully assimilate the Chinese into their culture.  The Chinese were not required to speak Mongolian, ride on horses; therefore, the Chinese culture thrived through the Mongol dynasty.  Even though the Mongols believed in a form of shamanism, they allowed their subjects to freely practice their religions.  During the reign of Genghis Khan, the Mongols favored Taoism, but after 1260 during the reign of his grandson, Kublai Khan, Tibetan Buddhism became the favored religion, due to its strong emphasize on magic.  Confucianism was treated with disdain, but after realizing its importance in the Chinese society, the Mongols gradually accepted the Neo-Confucianism originated from the south.  During the Yuan Dynasty, China was also exposed to several foreign religions.  Large numbers of Chinese converted to Islam, particularly the Central Asian, South Western, and North Western Chinese population; Nestorian and Roman Catholicism also found their way into China.  Missionaries from a number of religions such as Hinduism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam, were also invited to hold debates in Kublai Khan’s court.



      Other than arts and literature, there were also a large number of achievements during the Yuan Dynasty.  First of all, the fabled Forbidden City was constructed during the dynasty, and contains architectural elements from Arabia, Mongolia, Western Asia, and China.  Given the Mongols’ consistent interactions with foreigners, it is not surprising to have a grand palace with elements from a number of foreign countries.  Secondly, contrary to the popular believe that the Mongols ruled ruthlessly, they improved roads throughout the nation for more efficient transportation, constructed new waterways, and built granaries throughout the country to prevent famine, which occurred later on nonetheless.  The Beijing palace grounds were reconstructed with artificial lakes, parks, hills, and mountains; however, the most significant achievement in this dynasty is still the advancement of art, poetry, drama, and literature. 



      The key to the Mongols’ success lies not within their politics, but within their military.  Throughout the history of Genghis Khan and the early Yuan Dynasty, the Mongolian army has often won battles against enemies three times their number through hard training, extreme discipline, and careful organization.  Compared to other armies at the time, the Mongolian army was highly disciplined; they did not start looting as soon as the enemy starts to retreat, and they were extremely loyal to their commanders.  Furthermore, their harsh training allowed to them fire arrows and spears with inhuman precision while riding full speed on horseback, and they could fire arrows twice as far as other armies.  Also, their army was organized by the power of ten, with arban being the smallest unit consisting of ten men and the tumen being the largest, a unit of 10,000 men.  The decimal system, combined with the Mongolian army’s mobility, allowed them to move across the battlefield at rapid speeds.  The Mongols were also quite adept with strategies, including ambush, surrounding the enemy, and the infamous “scorched earth” tactic.  Their success comes from their careful planning before a battle, highly organized, trained, mobile, and disciplined army, and lastly effective strategies.  Similar to the Roman Legion, they were one of the most feared armies in the history of mankind. 


Government and Politics

      When the Mongols occupied China, they did not impose any sort of a new government on their subjects.  It was, technically, a military occupation, but they used the pre-existing late-Song Dynasty political system to govern their Chinese subjects.  The previous tax system, granaries, state examination for new government recruits, official paper money, Imperial library, and historiographical offices were still in use.  Same as the previous Song Dynasty, the central government office was divided into three parts, with a secretariat, two councilors or chancellors, and a censorate.  Government officials were still divided into nine ranks with two sub-ranks each, but instead of Chinese government officials, most official seats were taken by Mongols and foreigners.  In short, the government system was basically the same as the Song government; there were even some Chinese officials, but they were all restricted by Mongol overseers.  However, the Yuan government system was also responsible for its downfall, since most Chinese officials that did not have a seat within the government were better educated than the foreigners in power, and the Mongols failed to censor information circulation in the public, therefore, ideas of revolution spread relatively quickly.




The Forbidden City

      The Forbidden City is the pride of China, up to the modern day, and is located at the exact center of Beijing.  During the Yuan Dynasty, there were vast areas designed for Mongolian nomadic tents, large fields for horsemen, and contains architectural elements from Arabia, Mongolia, Western Asia, and China.  Although it already exists during the Yuan Dynasty, most of what we see today was constructed during the Ming Dynasty.  Currently, it covers an area of 720,000 square meters, or 72 hectares, and is the world’s largest palace complex with 5 halls, 17 palaces, and 9999.5 rooms.  The half room houses a staircase, and the reason they did not construct 10,000 rooms is that it conflicts with the number of rooms in Heaven.  The Forbidden City, or the Purple Forbidden City if literally translated, was declared a world heritage in 1987. 


Marco Polo

      Marco Polo was born on September 15th, 1254.  He was one of the first Europeans to every reach China through the Silk Road, which he named Cathay.  A Venetian trader and explorer, he went along with his family to China on their second trip in 1271.  There, he earned the favor of Kublai Khan, and was promoted to his advisor.  Later, he was promoted again to a special emissary.  He remained in service to Kublai Khan for seventeen years, in which in became familiar with the Chinese way of life, geography, and achievements, which were far more advanced than the Europeans at the time.  When he returned to Europe, he published a book titled Il Milione, or Travels of Marco Polo as it is known in English.  However, there are claims that he never reached China; there were details missing from his reports, such as foot binding, the Great Wall, chopsticks, tea, and writing.  Furthermore, the Chinese were known to keep detailed record, but no records could be found of this ‘special’ European emissary. 







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