Yuan Dynasty, China Culture

By the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongols had subjugated north China, Korea, and the Muslim kingdoms of Central Asia and had twice penetrated Europe. With the resources of his vast empire, Kublai Khan ( 1215-94), a grandson of Genghis Khan ( 1167?-1227) and the supreme leader of all Mongol tribes, began his drive against the Southern Song. Even before the extinction of the Song dynasty, Kublai Khan had established the first alien dynasty to rule all China--the Yuan (1279-1368).

China Culture

Kublai KhanIn 1276 AD, when the Mongols invaded and took over China, they had already been ruling a large empire for about fifty years. Their empire stretched from India and Russia to northern China and Korea. In 1276 the Mongols captured the Sung capital at Hangzhou, and by 1279 the Mongols controlled all of China. Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader, moved the capital of the Mongol empire from Karakorum in Central Asia to Beijing, China. In 1271, when he was 56, Kublai Khan declared himself emperor of China.

Yuan Dynasty,China

Although the Mongols sought to govern China through traditional institutions, using Chinese (Han) bureaucrats, they were not up to the task. The Han were discriminated against socially and politically. All important central and regional posts were monopolized by Mongols, who also preferred employing non-Chinese from other parts of the Mongol domain--Central Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe--in those positions for which no Mongol could be found. Chinese were more often employed in non-Chinese regions of the empire.


Kublai Khan tried to conquer Japan in 1274 and 1281 AD, but was prevented by a great storm. He also tried to recapture northern Vietnam (Annam) and Burma, but without much success. Even in China, Kublai Khan's rule was not very successful. The Chinese were very angry that Kublai Khan gave foreigners like the Venetian Marco Polo all the jobs as governors and judges, instead of choosing Chinese people. But Kublai Khan did not trust the Chinese. And the Chinese were also angry that the Mongols kept their own language and customs, and didn't want to act like the Chinese.


As in other periods of alien dynastic rule of China, a rich cultural diversity developed during the Yuan dynasty. The major cultural achievements were the development of drama and the novel and the increased use of the written vernacular. The Mongols' extensive West Asian and European contacts produced a fair amount of cultural exchange. Western musical instruments were introduced to enrich the Chinese performing arts. From this period dates the conversion to Islam, by Muslims of Central Asia, of growing numbers of Chinese in the northwest and southwest. Nestorianism and Roman Catholicism also enjoyed a period of toleration. Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) flourished, although native Taoism endured Mongol persecutions. Confucian governmental practices and examinations based on the Classics, which had fallen into disuse in north China during the period of disunity, were reinstated by the Mongols in the hope of maintaining order over Han society. Advances were realized in the fields of travel literature, cartography and geography, and scientific education. Certain key Chinese innovations, such as printing techniques, porcelain production, playing cards, and medical literature, were introduced in Europe, while the production of thin glass and cloisonne became popular in China. The first records of travel by Westerners date from this time. The most famous traveler of the period was the Venetian Marco Polo, whose account of his trip to "Cambaluc," the Great Khan's capital (now Beijing), and of life there astounded the people of Europe. The Mongols undertook extensive public works. Road and water communications were reorganized and improved. To provide against possible famines, granaries were ordered built throughout the empire. The city of Beijing was rebuilt with new palace grounds that included artificial lakes, hills and mountains, and parks. During the Yuan period, Beijing became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. These commercially oriented improvements encouraged overland as well as maritime commerce throughout Asia and facilitated the first direct Chinese contacts with Europe. Chinese and Mongol travelers to the West were able to provide assistance in such areas as hydraulic engineering, while bringing back to the Middle Kingdom new scientific discoveries and architectural innovations. Contacts with the West also brought the introduction to China of a major new food crop--sorghum--along with other foreign food products and methods of preparation.


Kings / Kingdoms

Events In China

Comments / Worldwide Events

Yuan Dynasty (1279 1368 A.D.)


Yuan Shi Zu

(1,277 1,295 A.D.)

Second attempt to attack Japan (1,281 A.D.) Attacked Turkey and Asia Myna (1,288 A.D.).

Conquered Java and Vietnam (1,292 A.D.). Nestorian faith re-surged in China. Catholicism also spread.

Building of the Great Enclosure of Zimbabwe in Africa, wool-trade in England, expansion of Incas empire from Ecuador to Chile (1,300 A.D.).

Africa- King of Mali traveled to Mecca, and built the Great Mosque at Timbuktu on his return (1,324 A.D.)

Hundred Year War between England and France (1,337 A.D.)

Black Death ravaged Europe (1,348 A.D.)

Yuan Chen Zong

(1,295 1,308 A.D.)

Marco Polo returned to Italy (1,295 A.D.).

Yuan Wu Zong

(1,308 1,312 A.D.)


Yuan Ren Zong

(1,312 1,321 A.D.)

Established traditional institutions, using Chinese (Han) bureaucrats.

Yuan Ying Zong

(1,321 1,324 A.D.)


Yuan Tai Ding Di

(1,324 1,328 A.D.)


Yuan Wen Zong

(1,328 1,333 A.D.)


Yuan Sun Di

(1,333 1,368 A.D.)

Zhu Yuan Zhang rebelled against Yuan Dynasty (1355 A.D.), conquered Jin Ling next year.

Kublai Khan died in 1294 AD, and his successors were weaker and less able to keep the Mongol empire together. During the 1350's AD, a revolutionary movement called the Red Turbans became active in northern China. In 1356, the Red Turbans, under the leadership of Chu Yuan-chang, captured Nanjing. Chu Yuan-chang gradually conquered China, and threw out the Mongols. In 1368 AD Chu Yuan-chang declared himself emperor of China, under the name Hung-wu, and then he finally captured the Mongol capital at Beijing, starting the Ming Dynasty.

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