The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)
The foundation for the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty was set by Genghis Khan (1162-1227) after he defeated the western Xia Empire and conquered central Asia, Mongolia and the Hexi Corridor. The acquired territory provided Khan and his sons with a solid base of manpower, technology, horses and experience that enabled them to complete the conquest of the fierce Jin army, and thereafter go on to conquer the Dali Empire and the Song Empire.
Genghis Khan died in 1227 after naming his son Ogedei to succeed him as emperor, thereby beginning the Yuan Dynasty. However, it was Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, who is regarded as the greatest ruler of the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan enjoyed a comparatively long reign and made several lasting reforms that allowed for the stabilization of the empire and its subsequent prospering. Kublai also went ahead to conquer the Dali Kingdom and the Song Empire.
Kublai Khan had one desire: to be the Great Emperor of the whole world. However, his rivals objected to his rule. Kublai fought a series of battles with rivals such as one of his brothers and won most of them. By the year 1260, Kublai had the east as his base of power. To rule his empire, Kublai employed the government structure that he found established by the Jin and Song Empires. However, he opted to replace his officials with foreigners.
In 1266 he made Beijing his capital city. By 1279, Kublai Khan had captured the last of the Song Empire. Although he had acquired control of most of the region before 1279, most historians use this date to mark the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty. Mongol rule brought stability and prosperity to the large Yuan Empire, the largest of the dynastic empires to have existed in this region.
Religion & Philosophy
The Yuan Dynasty featured the religious beliefs of the Mongols, known as Shamanism. However, this religion did not spread in the empire. Instead, both the Mongols and some indigenous people began to convert to Islam. Some western Mongol domains converted to Islam, while many Mongols in China and central Asia did the same. Muslim merchants and administrators took local wives and raised their children and descendants as Muslims. In this way, Islam became established as a minority religion.
Theater & Literature
During the Mongol rule, popular entertainment in the colloquial language flourished for both the rulers and the common people. Major works were produced in theater and fictional novels. These plays and books would later set a standard for subsequent eras.
Plays & Novels
One of the traditional forms of entertainment among the Mongols was the shadow puppets. Novels were yet another cultural achievement of the Yuan Dynasty, with novelists of this era influencing the future development of the genre. Two novels believed to have been authored during this era are today still widely read and are generally regarded as two of the four greatest novels in Chinese literature. These are The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a semi-historical work about the lives, struggles and wars of the rulers at the time of the decline of the Han Dynasty, during the Three Kingdoms Period. Water Margin is a tale about the lives and ideals of a group of characters who fought against the corruption of the Song Dynasty that had been conquered by the Mongols.
During the latter Yuan era, the ruling court became increasingly estranged from the western Mongolians and culturally more like the native population. During the reign of the fourth Yuan Emperor, the Imperial Examination system was reintroduced, and this continued to be supported by the fifth emperor. In the meantime, some of the western Mongol territories converted to Islam.
The Mongols generally did not put an emphasis on learning or nurturing the old Chinese philosophy, literature and culture until later in the dynastic era. Instead, they focused more on acquiring wealth and power which would enable them to secure their control of the east. In addition, the Mongols priority seemed to be to have fun. This was achieved largely from theatrical entertainment with a lot of action, big feasts, Mongol-style music and parties.
One notable aspect of the Yuan Dynasty was the installation of foreigners as rulers and administrators. Because the Mongols did not trust the local people, they instead invited in a large population of Muslims and other people to assist them in governing the empire. It was this move that helped to establish Islam as a major religion of the Yuan Empire.
In addition, a class structure was established in the empire, with Genghis Khan’s clan taking the top echelon, the Mongols coming in next, and Muslims and foreigners being installed in official positions below them. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the subjugated Chinese people. A lot of wealth was exacted from many tributary states which was used by the Yuan rulers to fund their war campaigns, as well as enable them to live an extravagant lifestyle.
Literature and Theatre
Under Mongol rule, theater in the common language and popular literature were produced, which would later set the standard for subsequent eras. The theater and literary productions of the Yuan Dynasty were written out in vernacular language and not the classical language common amongst the literati of the Song Dynasty.
One of the traditional forms of entertainment among the Mongols was the shadow puppets. Novels were yet another cultural achievement of the Yuan Dynasty, with novelists of this era influencing the future development of the genre. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin are two novels believed to have been authored during this era, and which are today still widely read and generally regarded as two of the four greatest novels in Chinese literature.
Paper Money Currency
In 1273, Kublai Khan issued paper bank notes called Chao. This was a great innovation in the banking industry and monetary system. Paper money had certain advantages over metal coins, in addition to being easy to control centrally. Although paper money had been issued and used during the Song Dynasty era, the Yuan Empire was the very first dynasty in the world to use paper currency as the predominant circulating medium of exchange. The key advantage of using paper money was that it was much easier to carry and use than a large sum of coins.
During the Yuan Dynasty both the Mongols and some indigenous people began to convert to Islam. Some western Mongol domains converted to Islam, while many Mongols in China and central Asia did the same. Muslim merchants and administrators took local wives and raised their children and descendants as Muslims. In this way, Islam became established as a minority religion.
Rise and Decline
Rise of the Yuan Dynasty
Although the Mongols were originally nomads, hunters and herders, the Mongols were able to successfully rule the empire for over one hundred years. This dynasty was nothing short of amazing, in terms of the changes it made in the region. During the Yuan Dynasty, trade was fostered and the production industry was nurtured. This was also the very first time in the history of empires that paper money was widely used. The rulers of the Yuan Dynasty were able to integrate South Asia, East Asia and the West. During this era, the population of the Yuan Empire grew to about 87 million.
Decline of the Yuan Dynasty
During his reign, Kublai Khan was criticized by Mongol leaders for losing touch with his Mongol customs. Although the Chinese resented being passed over by foreigners for administrative posts, the Yuan Empire was nevertheless able to hold together well until Kulug Khan, the third emperor took over. During Kulug Khan’s reign which lasted 1307-1311, the Yuan Empire faced a severe debt problem and discontent increased. Under the fifth Yuan emperor’s rule, the ruling court moved further away from Mongolian customs, thereby losing touch with the western Mongol domains.
As certain Mongol territories converted to Islam, the Yuan Dynasty lost the support of the rest of the Mongol world. The loss of the warlike lifestyles of their ancestors marked the beginning of the slow but certain demise of the Yuan Dynasty. From the 1330s onwards, natural disasters such as floods and droughts caused death and suffering to peasants. At the same time, famines of the time caused a lot of political instability around the world.
The Yuan Dynasty’s decline was marked by natural disasters associated with the Little Ice Age that occurred at the end of the dynastic era, resulting in a lot of suffering that weakened the empire. In 1351, a rebellion called the Red Turban Rebellion began. In 1368, the Ming army reached Beijing and the emperor of Yuan fled north. Even though they lost control of the empire, the Yuan Dynasty continued, and the Yuan continued to attack the Ming Dynasty.