The Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty (1279-1368)


The Mongols were the first of the northern barbarians to rule all of China. After creating an empire that stretched across the Eurasian continent and occupying northern China and Korea in the first half of the 13th century, the Mongols continued their assault on the Southern Sung. By 1276 the Southern Sung capital of Hangzhou had fallen, and in 1279 the last of the Sung loyalists perished.

Before this, Kublai Khan, the fifth "great khan" and grandson of Genghis Khan, had moved the Mongol capital from Karakorum to Peking. In 1271 he declared himself emperor of China and named the dynasty Yuan, meaning "beginning," to signify that this was the beginning of a long era of Mongol rule.


In Asia, Kublai Khan continued his grandfather's dream of world conquest. Two unsuccessful naval expeditions were launched against Japan in 1274 and 1281. Four land expeditions were sent against Annam and five against Burma. However, the Mongol conquests overseas and in Southeast Asia were neither spectacular nor were they long enduring.

Mongol rule in China lasted less than a century. The Mongols became the most hated of the barbarian rulers because they did not allow the Chinese ruling class to govern. Instead, they gave the task of governing to foreigners. Distrusting the Chinese, the Mongol rulers placed the southern Chinese at the lowest level of the four classes they created. The extent of this distrust was reflected in their provincial administration. As conquerers, they followed the Ch'in example and made the provincial governments into direct extensions of the central chancellery. This practice was continued by succeeding dynasties, resulting in a further concentration of power in the central imperial government.

The Chinese despised the Mongols for refusing to adapt to Chinese culture. The Mongols kept their own language and customs. The Mongol rulers were tolerant about religions, however. Kublai Khan reportedly dabbled in many religions.

The Mongols and the West. The Mongols were regarded with mixed feelings in the West. Although Westerners dreaded the Mongols, the Crusaders hoped to use them in their fight against the Muslims and attempted to negotiate an alliance with them for this purpose. Friar John of Carpini and William of Rubruck were two of the better known Christian missionaries sent to establish these negotiations with the Mongol ruler.

The best account of the Mongols was left by a Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, in his 'Marco Polo's Travels'. It is an account of Polo's travels over the long and perilous land route to China, his experience as a trusted official of Kublai Khan, and his description of China under the Mongols. Dictated in the early 14th century, the book was translated into many languages. Although much of medieval Europe did not believe Polo's tales, some, like Christopher Columbus, were influenced by Polo's description of the riches of the Orient.

After the death of Kublai Khan in 1294, successive weak and incompetent khans made the already hated Mongol rule intolerable. Secret societies became increasingly active, and a movement known as the Red Turbans spread throughout the north during the 1350s. In 1356 a rebel leader named Chu Yuan-chang and his peasant army captured the old capital of Nanjing. Within a decade he had won control of the economically important middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, driving the Mongols to the north. In 1368 he declared himself the emperor Hung-wu and established his capital at Nanjing on the lower Yangtze. Later the same year he captured the Yuan capital of Peking.

World History Center