Home Chinese Culture China History The Yuan Dynasty — First Foreign-Ruled Era in China

The Yuan Dynasty — First Foreign-Ruled Era in China

The Yuan Dynasty(1279–1368) was China’s first foreign-led dynasty, in between the Chinese Song and Ming dynasties. It was established by Kublai Khan, leader of the vast Mongol Empire, and fell to internal rebellion after it lost touch with its Mongol roots.

The Mongol Invasion

Mausoleum of Genghis Khan Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in Ordos

Genghis Khan (1162–1227) and his sons set the foundation for the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) by defeating the Western Xia 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 Hexi Corridor enriched the Mongol rulers and gave them power. Their control of this land passage allowed their troops to quickly move East or West as conflicts arose.

Ogedei Khan (11861241)

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.

Ogedei was said to be the ruler of the whole Mongol Empire from 1227 to 1241, but he concentrated his efforts in the eastern part of it, and he spend most of his time in the east.

In 1232 he invaded the Jin Empire in alliance with the Song Empire. The Jin were experts at warfare on horseback. However, the Mongols were also.

The Jin Empire had the benefit of explosive and missile technology that they used to defend the capital city of Kaifeng. However, the Song were allied with them and they also had such weapons. The Mongols had also acquired expertise with using gunpowder weapons and siege engines against fortresses in their wars in the West.

Facing two big empires, the Jin were defeated in 1234.

Ogedei Attacked the Song Dynasty

The Song armies in the north tried to wrest control of Kaifeng and Beijing from the Mongols. These were important former capital cities. For the Song Dynasty clan, allying with with the Mongols and then fighting them was a strategic mistake.

Their alliance left their armies exposed to Mongol armies in the northern regions for easy Mongol attack. It also made them the next target of the Mongol's campaign to conquer the whole of Asia. The two empires fought for several decades.

Ogedei died in 1241 in Mongolia. He became an alcoholic and died after a drinking binge.

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 reformed the empire to increase his power and make the empire prosper. He conquered the Song Empire and Dali Kingdom.

He wanted to be the Great Emperor of the whole world, but his Mongol rivals in other regions rejected his rule. After capturing the Dali Kingdom about the year 1253, Kublai Khan campaigned against the Song Empire in 1259.

Kublai's Rivals in the West

When he heard that his older brother who was the Great Khan Mongke died, he and another brother went to war. Both of them wanted to be the Khan.

They fought a series of battles, and Kublai won. This caused a division in the Mongol Empire. The Golden Horde that controlled 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 far in the west paid homage to Kublai, but he was essentially independent of him. Kublai lost his direct control of these three big Mongol regions in the West.

Kublai's Empire in the East

The eastern part of the empire became as 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 Dadu (now called Beijing) his capital city in 1266, and this further alienated him from his Mongol kinsmen who claimed he didn't follow Mongol ways and wasn't loyal to the Mongols.

The Final Mongol Victory Over the Song Dynasty

Then Kublai sent large armies against the Song in the 1270s. In 1276, the Mongols captured the Song capital of Hangzhou and most of the Song Dynasty clan. However, two young brothers of the captured Song emperor escaped and went south.

In 1277, the Song Dynasty court fled to Quanzhou. They were attacked there by a rich Muslim merchant. They fled again to Hong Kong, and the court attempted to make a stand there in 1279, but they were soundly defeated by the Mongols. The last emperor died there at the age of 9 in 1279.

The year 1279 is the date that historians use for the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty era although Kublai already had control of most of the region before then.

The Yuan Empire (12791368)

Marco Polo in the Empire of Kublai Khan (1275–1292)

Marco Polo lived in China for about 17 years until the year 1292. His account of this travels and adventures in the Yuan Empire gives us an eyewitness account of the early years of the Yuan Empire when Kublai reigned.

The Mongol rule brought prosperity and stability to the large empire as Marco Polo described in his famous book. Kublai's Empire stretched from the far north of Mongolia to far into Central Asia and at times it stretched south into parts of Vietnam. It was largest of the dynastic empires that have existed in the region and probably the most powerful.

Marco Polo's account of this travels is well-known in the West. He served as Kublai's court 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 or the world.

He described the country as being filled with marvels, and he returned to Italy as a wealthy man.

For more see... Walking in the Steps of Marco Polo.

Emperor Kublai Khan's Monetary Policies

In the year 1273, Kublai Khan issued paper banknotes called chao (鈔). This was a big innovation in the banking and monetary system. Paper money had some advantages over metal coins and also allowed for better court 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.

For a while paper currency helped increase the empire's trade with the rest of the world, and increased the empires overall wealth.

Failed Invasions of Japan

Kublai Khan twice tried to invade Japan. But both times typhoons destroyed a part of the fleets. The first invasion attempt was in 1274 and the second attempt was carried out in 1280.

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 as was their tradition 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, and were not suited for sea voyages.

This second defeat was very costly not only in terms of money and men but also in terms of their reputation. The Yuan Mongols couldn't claim they were invincible.

Political System and Society

The Mongols, though they were originally nomads, herders, and hunters, ruled the empire successfully in the first decades. This amazing dynasty made some major changes in the region's government and culture.

One big change during Kublai's reign was that foreigners became the rulers and administrators. Since they didn't trust the local people, they 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 among much of the people. They exacted a lot of wealth from many tributary states that they used to fund their wars and to live extravagantly.

In the beginning, the Mongols didn't emphasize learning and nurturing the old Chinese literature, philosophy, or culture. They were more pragmatic. They wanted to have fun, and so they liked theatrical entertainment with a lot of action and Mongol-style music, big feasts, and parties.

The Latter Yuan Dynasty (1294–1368)

In the latter Yuan era, the ruling court became culturally more like the native population, had big debt problems, and became more estranged from Western Mongolians.

The Third Emperor Kulug Khan (1307–1311)

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 and inflation problem and discontent grew.

During his reign, the value of the paper currency was devalued about 80 percent. This procedure enriched the court and the Mongols relative to the rest of the population, but impoverished the population in general, especially the rich Chinese merchants and officials.

Since the Mongol rulers could print as much paper currency as they wanted, they printed too much and the value of the money kept dropping. The costly wars and great defeats were financed largely with paper money, and to reinforce their monetary control, they outlawed the use of gold and silver currency.

The End of the Empire (1330-1368)

The dynastic monetary behavior, estrangement from the Western Mongolians, luxurious living and mismanagement of the empire came to a head in the last decades. The last fifty years of the empire was a time of mounting debt, currency reevaluation, rebellions and natural disasters.

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. In this way, the ruling court became less Mongol, and the Mongols lost touch with the Mongol domains in the West. This loss of support isolated them among an increasingly hostile population.

Meanwhile, some of the Mongol territories in the West became Muslim and turned against them. As the Yuan Dynasty lost the support of the rest of the Mongol world, they also lost the warlike lifestyles of their ancestors.

Failed Financial Strategy

Instead, the Yuan dynasty court became known for their luxurious living and the big expenditure of paper money to pay for it. They lived like this while the rest of the population was suffering from high inflation of paper currency and great natural disasters.

Private and provincial entities were also printing their own paper money, and this added to the inflation. Efforts were made around 1350 to correct the monetary situation, but the efforts failed.

Natural Disasters

From the 1330s onwards, natural disasters such as epidemics, 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 1331 the bubonic plague pandemic, that was called the "Black Death" in Europe, began to sweep the empire. The epidemic ravaged the empire. Millions of people died in Hebei Province alone.

In 1344 the Yellow River shifted course. This was a massive flood that impoverished an important and populous region at the center of the empire. The river flooded two other times in the last decades.

There were also massive famines. There was a time of drought that lasted from 1340 to 1380.

In 1351 a rebellion started called the Red Turban Rebellion. The Red Turbans said that the bad rule of the Yuan Dynasty caused the natural disasters because they lost the Mandate of Heaven. The court defeated the rebellion, but more started soon after.

Zhu Yuanzhang Defeated the Yuan Empire

Between 1356 and 1367 Zhu Yuanzhang began a series of campaigns seeking to defeat the dynasty. Calling for the overthrow of the Mongols and restoring of the Han Chinese to power, Zhu gained popular support. However, he first had to defeat rival rebel armies that occupied various regions.

In 1368 Zhu's army reached Beijing (Dadu). The Yuan Emperor fled to the north. The Yuan Dynasty continued in the northern part of the Yuan Empire, but they lost control of the rest of the empire.

Mongolia became the final home of the Yuan Dynasty clans. Mongolians kept trying to recapture the empire, but they failed. They eventually allied with the Manchus, and Mongolians became officials in the Qing Dynasty.

Zhu Yuanzhang destroyed the Yuan palaces. He called his new dynasty the Ming Dynasty.

It is interesting the rainfall returned and ended the period of dry climate in 1380 at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty era. This was about the same time that the Ming conquered the last Mongol held territory south of the Yellow River. This change in climate was seen as confirmation that Zhu Yuanzhang received the Mandate of Heaven to be an emperor.

Religion and Philosophy of the Yuan Empire

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.

Muslim 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

Poetry flowered in the Tang Empire, and Confucian texts were codified in the Song Empire. 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 popular 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 is a semi-historical novel that was said to be written by Luo Guanzhong. 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 machinations, court intrigues, and the shifting alliances.

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 Guanzhong 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 considered to be one of the top two best historical novels.

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 Guanzhong, who they say was also the author of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

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. As in the case of this English story, 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.

Yuan Dynasty Related Tours

  • Beijing tours: Beijing (then called Dadu — 'Big Capital') was the capital of the Yuan Dynasty, and has continued as China'scapital for most of the next 800 years. Discover the enduring charm of the 'big capital' with China Highlights.
  • final home of the Yuan Dynasty clan.
  • Silk Road tours: Their control of the Silk Road northern land route to Central Asia gave the Mongols a major source of income and manpower. It is still a popular travel route for sightseeing. We offer a number of packages that highlight the sights along the historic land route.