The Yuan Dynasty
Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his sons set the foundation for the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) by defeating the Western Xia Empire and conquering Central Asia, Mongolia, and the Hexi Corridor. This gave them a base of manpower, horses, technology, and experience to finish the conquest of the fierce Jin army and then to go on and conquer the Dali Empire and the Song Empire. Trade on the Silk Road trade routes through the strategic Hexi Corridor enriched the ruling court of the Mongols and gave them power and wealth. They could more quickly transport troops East or West as conflicts arose. Genghis Khan's son Ogedei (1189—1241) became the supreme Khan of the whole Mongol Empire in 1227, and he had special control over the eastern part. In 1232, he invaded the Jin Empire in alliance with the Song Empire. Then the Mongols invaded the Song Empire. The Mongols, though they were originally nomads, herders, and hunters, ruled the empire successfully for almost a hundred years. This amazing dynasty made some major changes in the region.
One big change was that foreigners became the rulers and administrators. Since they didn't trust the local people, the moved in a large number of Muslims and other people to help them rule the empire. This established Islam as a major religion. They established a class structure with Genghis Khan's clan at the top, Mongols next, Muslims and other foreigners who were installed in official positions next, and the Chinese at the bottom. This created a lot of resentment. They exacted a lot of wealth from many tributary states that they used to fund their wars and to live extravagantly.
The Mongols generally didn't emphasize learning and nurturing the old Chinese literature, philosophy or culture until later in their dynastic era. They were more pragmatic. They sought for wealth and power and to keep their control of the East. They also wanted to have fun, and so they liked theatrical entertainment with a lot of action and Mongol-style music, big feasts, and parties. Under their rule, popular literature and theater in the common language was produced that set a standard for later eras. The literature and theater was in the vernacular language, not in the Classical Language that was used by the Song literati.
They fostored trade and nurtured productive industry, and it was the first empire in history in which paper money was widely used. The Yuan rulers helped to integrate East Asia, South Asia, and the West. It was purposed that the Yuan Empire would be simply a part of their world empire, but Kublai Khan couldn't gain control of the Mongol world. During their rule, the population of their empire increased to about 87 million people. However, natural disasters associated with the Little Ice Age at the end of their dynastic era caused a lot of suffering and weakened the dynasty.
When Genghis Khan died in 1227, he named his son Ogedei to be the next emperor. Genghis Khan thought that he had a solid temperament and that he might be able to handle the rivalries among his children. In 1232, the Mongol army attacked the Jin Empire. The Jin were experts at warfare on horseback. However, the Mongols were also. The Jin Empire had the benefit of explosives and missiles that they used to defend the capital city of Kaifeng. However, the Song were allied with them, and the Mongols had also acquired expertise with using siege weapons and gunpowder weapons. Facing two big empires, the Jin were defeated. Then the two empires fought. Warfare lasted for decades, for more than a generation.
Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294)
Kublai Khan is thought of as the greatest Yuan Dynasty ruler. He was a grandson of Genghis Khan. He had a comparatively long rule and made a number of reforms that stabilized the empire under his power and made it prosper. He conquered the Song Empire and Dali Kingdom.
He wanted to be the Great Emperor of the whole world, but his rivals rejected his rule. After capturing the Dali Kingdom about the year 1253, Kublai Khan campaigned against the Song Empire in 1259. When he heard that his older brother who was the Great Khan Mongke died, he and another brother became rivals. They then fought a series of battles, and Kublai won. This caused a division in the Mongol Empire. The Golden Horde in the area of Russia and the Chagatai Khanate did not recognize Kublai Khan as ruler. However, another brother of Kublai Khan who ruled the Ilkhanate paid homage to Kublai, but was essentially independent of him. He didn't have control of the three big western parts of the empire, so Kublai Khan was left with the east as his base of power in the year 1260.
To rule his empire, he utilized the government structure he found established in the Jin and Song Empires, but he replaced the officials with foreigners. He made Beijing his capital city in 1266. Then he sent large armies against the Song in the 1270s. He finally conquered the last of the Song Empire in 1279, and this is the date that historians use for the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty era although he already had control of most of the region before then. The Mongol rule brought prosperity and stability to the large empire as Marco Polo described in his account. His empire was the largest of the dynastic empires that have existed in the region.
Marco Polo's account of this travels is well-known in the West. He served as Kublai's official for about 17 years. His account helped to shape the thinking of Europeans about China for centuries. Kublai Khan first met Marco Polo's father named Nicolo Polo and Maffeo Polo. Kublai had a great interest in Western Europe and Catholicism, and he gave the Polos a letter to take to the Pope. He invited the Pope to send 100 priests in 1270 or 1271.
Then Nicolo and Maffeo Polo returned to the Yuan Empire with young Marco Polo. Marco Polo served as an emissary and official, and he traveled all over the Yuan Empire. Marco Polo described some cities he visited as being bigger and richer than any city in Europe. He described the country as being filled with marvels, and he returned to Italy as a wealthy man.
In the year 1273, Kublai Khan issued paper banknotes called Chao (鈔). This was a big innovation in the banking and monetary system because paper money had some advantages over metal coins and also allowed for better central control. Paper currency had been issued and used during the Song Dynasty era, but the Yuan Empire was the first dynasty in the world to use paper currency as the predominant circulating medium. The advantage of paper money was that a large sum of coins was more difficult to carry and use.
Kublai Khan twice tried to invade Japan. But both times, typhoons destroyed a part of the fleets. The first invasion attempt was in 1274. He sent about 800 or 900 ships. The Japanese samurai were not used to modern warfare. They came out individually challenging for individual combat while the Mongols showered them with arrows and explosives. Then a storm came and destroyed several hundred boats. Japanese pirates had a lot of experience in attacking ships. Samurai boarded the remaining ships and killed the rest of the troops.
For his second attempt 6 years later, he ordered the hasty assembly of a very large force. It is thought that one fleet was composed of 900 ships and that another was composed of 3,500 ships. The second fleet is said to have carried 100,000 men. When the main fleet landed, they faced a wall that the Japanese had constructed against them, and they couldn't advance past the beach. Then a typhoon came and destroyed the rest of the fleet. It is thought that the ships that the Mongols sailed in were designed for rivers, not sea voyages. This second defeat was very costly not only in terms of money but also in terms of their reputation.
Latter Yuan Dynasty (1294-1379)
Mongol leaders criticized Kublai Khan for losing his Mongol customs. In the latter Yuan era, the ruling court became more culturally more like the native population and more estranged from Western Mongolians. The Chinese resented Mongol proscription against the Chinese holding important offices, but the empire held together well until the third emperor named Kulug Khan came to power. His reign lasted only a few years from 1307-1311, but the empire had a severe debt problem and discontent grew.
The fourth Yuan emperor was mentored by a Confucian scholar. He reintroduced the Imperial Examination system. The fifth emperor continued to support the Imperial Examination system. The ruling court became less Mongol, and lost touch with the Mongol domains in the West. Meanwhile, some of the Mongol territories in the West became Muslim. The Yuan Dynasty lost the support of the rest of the Mongol world. They also lost the warlike lifestyles of their ancestors.
From the 1330s onwards, natural disasters such as droughts and floods brought suffering and death to the peasants. The Little Ice Age began, and similar famines and natural disasters caused political instability around the world at the same time. In 1351, a rebellion started called the Red Turban Rebellion. A Ming army reached Beijing in 1368. The Yuan Emperor fled to the north. The dynasty continued, but they lost control of the empire. They kept attacking the Ming Dynasty however.
Religion and Philosophy
The Mongols had their own religious beliefs called Shamanism. However, this religion did not spread. Instead, both the Mongols and some indigenous people started accepting Islam. Some of the western Mongol domains converted to Islam, and in Central Asia and China many Mongols did as well. Muslims administrators and merchants took local wives, and brought up their descendants as Muslims. In this way, Islam was established as a minority religion.
Theater and Literature
Mongol rule was the time of the flowering of popular entertainment in the colloquial language for both the rulers and the masses. In the genres of fictional novels and theater, major works in the vernacular language were written. These books and plays set a standard for later eras.
Shadow puppet plays were a traditional form of entertainment among the Mongols. A lamp was used to cast the shadows of figurines and puppets on a screen or sheet. This was a popular entertainment in the evenings. In their camps, the Mongols were entertained by simple puppet plays. But with the wealth of many tributary states and of their rich empire, the Mongols wanted the finest entertainment in their own language in the palaces. The shadow plays employed talented musicians and skilled puppeteers.
A style of operatic drama partly based on the plots and techniques used in the puppet plays also developed. The Yuan “Zaju” style of opera was similar to their shadow plays. Some of best dramatic scripts were written in that era. Guan Hanqing is regarded as one of the best playwrights of the times. He wrote Midsummer Snow that was one of the most popular drama pieces. It is a tragedy about an unjustly accused woman who received justice after her death. The Romance of the Western Chamber was written by Wang Shifu. It is considered one of the best romantic dramas ever written in China.
The Mongols and the lower classes enjoyed exciting plots, elaborate costumes, refined music and singing, action, and dance. The music of the Zaju operas was called Yuan Qu (Yuan Music). Since the actors spoke in vernacular language, operatic theater was a mass entertainment. After the Yuan Dynasty, the operatic style developed into the Painted Faces style of Chinese opera that was popular until modern times.
Novels were another achievement of the Yuan era. The novelists influenced the future development of the genre. Two novels are still widely read now and are generally considered two of the four greatest novels in Chinese literature. These are Water Margin and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Though both novels have disputed authorship, they are traditionally thought to have been written during the Yuan era.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a semi-historical work said to be written by Luo Guan Zhong. It is historical fiction about the lives, wars, and struggles of the rulers at the end of the Han Dynasty and in the Three Kingdoms Period. The Han Dynasty divided into three kingdoms that fought viciously. Big battles and famous historical events are described. The novel describes the machinations, court intrigues, and the shifting alliances of the three kingdoms. At first, the three kingdoms were led by Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Special emphasis is laid on the two famous historical rulers Liu Bei and Cao Cao who were antagonists. How much of the account is true and how much is fiction or untrue legend is debatable. There are accounts of ghastly deaths and of rulers dying after meeting avenging ghosts.
Actually, the authorship and the date the novel was originally written are also debatable. Chinese traditionally say that the novel was written by Luo Guan Zhong at the end of the Yuan Dynasty period or about 1368. But some scholars say that the book contains material that indicates that the book was written in the middle or late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) about two hundred years later. It might be that the earlier date is valid and that material or information was added by revisers. It is known that a major revision was published by Mao Lun and Mao Zonggang in 1522 during the Qing Dynasty era. They revised the structure and deleted a lot of material. So now there are two major versions: an older version that has about 900,000 words and the more popular 1522 version that has about 770,000 words.
Water Margin is about the lives and ideals of a group of characters who fought against the corrupt Song Dynasty that the Mongols conquered. It is said it was written in vernacular language by Shi Nai An, but scholars debate about the authorship of this book also. Many scholars think that the first 70 chapters were written by Shi Nai An and that the last 30 chapters were written by Luo Guan Zhong who they say was also the author of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is considered to be one of the top two best historical novels.
The setting of the novel is during the Northern Song Dynasty era. According to evidence from other accounts, there may have actually been a group of about forty outlaws who lived in a mountain and who fought troops at that time. Legends and tales developed about this group of people and became very popular during the Yuan Dynasty. During the Yuan Dynasty era, there was an earlier story written about a group of about 100 men on the mountain who successfully fought Song troops.
Water Margin is reminiscent of the story of Robin Hood. Likewise, there may have been actual outlaws, and popular legends and stories later grew. Water Margin is probably more fictional and less historically accurate than The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In the early tales or accounts, there were only about 40 outlaws, but the number of characters in the band grew to more than 100 in later stories. There are several versions of the novel. One version that has many more chapters than the others describes how the band gets amnesty from the Song rulers and then battles common foes for the rulers.
- Chinese Dynasties
- The Xia Dynasty
- The Shang Dynasty
- The Zhou Dynasty
- Spring and Autumn Period
- Warring States Period
- The Qin Dynasty
- The Han Dynasty
- Three Kingdoms
- The Jin Dynasty
- The Sui Dynasty
- The Tang Dynasty
- The Western Xia Dynasty
- The Song Dynasty
- The Yuan Dynasty
- The Ming Dynasty
- The Qing Dynasty
- The Kingdom of Dali