Non-Chinese Mongols ruled China and ushered in many changes and reforms during their short-lived Yuan Dynasty.
The Yuan Dynasty was one of China’s shortest-lived dynasties. Mongol horsemen ruled a unified China for about 100 years before the Ming Dynasty was established. However, the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan was one of China’s most cosmopolitan eras. Trade, science and the arts flourished during his reign.
The Mongol Empire
The Mongol Empire was formed by a remarkable warlord named Temujin. Abandoned as a boy on the harsh Mongolian steppe, he consolidated political power as an adult and unified the various Mongol tribes in 1204 AD. Temujin was given the name Genghis Khan (meaning “Great Khan,” or leader).
This group went on to form the Mongol Empire, the world’s largest political entity in all of history. The Mongol Empire stretched as far as Eastern Europe. It controlled areas of modern Russia, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Korean Peninsula.
Mongol Invasion of China
The Yuan Dynasty, also known as the Mongol Dynasty, began after the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan began to invade China.
13th century China was not unified under a single government. Rather several larger kingdoms were prevalent at the time. The Western Xia kingdom and the Jin Dynasty were both non-Han peoples that held power in northern China. The Southern Song Dynasty had taken refuge south of the Yangzi River.
Over a period of around 70 years, Mongol forces defeated all other powers in China. The Mongols under Kublai Khan declared the Yuan Dynasty in 1260 AD. This later became an independent part of the Mongol Empire that existed across Eurasia. The Southern Song Dynasty was finally defeated in 1279 and the Mongol Dynasty ruled all of China.
The Yuan Dynasty Under Kublai Khan
While Kublai Khan understood that it was necessary to employ Han Chinese advisors and officials, he also made wide use of advisors from the Middle East and Central Asia. Under his rule, Chinese ethnicities were divided into four levels. The highest were Mongols. Next were Central Asians, including such as Tibetans and Uighurs. After these were northern Chinese. At the very bottom were Southern Chinese (who had been the last to submit to Mongol rule).
Kublai Khan reformed many Chinese institutions. He centralized his rule and took power from regional governors, unlike many previous Chinese emperors. He updated the tax system and saw repairs to the Grand Canal, roads and other types of infrastructure.
Paper money was first introduced into China during Kublai Khan’s reign. Trade and travel, especially through the Silk Road flourished during this time. Along with the Tang Dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty was one of the most cosmopolitan dynasties in imperial China.
Cross-cultural exchange and relatively open and safe borders meant that literature, science and art grew as well during the Yuan Dynasty.
While Kublai Khan’s immediate heirs were relatively competent, the later rulers of the Yuan Dynasty were poor administrators. They did not command the respect of Mongol warlords and were not legitimate rulers in the eyes of many Chinese. Mongol emperors did not bother to make alliances with Chinese, adapt to Chinese culture or learn Chinese writing.
The later years of the short-lived the Mongol Empire in China was marked by bitter infighting at the imperial court. Rebellion and fragmentation started in the countryside. In 1368 AD, Zhu Yuanzhang led an army that captured Beijing, the Mongol capital. He then established the Ming Dynasty and the Mongol Empire in China was finished.