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Dynasty Yuan

Dynasty Yuan

Fractured, divided, but not broken, the Mongol Empire persisted for centuries after the death of its founder, Genghis Khan. The most ambitious of Genghis Khan's grandsons was Kublai Khan, conqueror of China and founder of the Yuan Dynasty. Under Kublai Khan, China's political and social landscapes were reformed in favor of Mongol rule, Chinese ports and roads opened to trade with Europe and the Middle East, and Mongol warriors would set foot on the shores of Japan with the ambition of conquering a new and dangerous land. The Yuan Dynasty did not last, however, and its Mongol influence would be attacked by the following Ming Dynasty. How did the Yuan Dynasty fall when its first ruler Kublai Khan seemed to be the most powerful man in the world?

Yuan Dynasty Time Period

The Yuan Dynasty lasted roughly from 1271 CE to 1368 CE, less than a century of official rule. This marks the Yuan Dynasty as a late Medieval (5th to 15th century CE) Chinese Dynasty. The exact starting date of the Yuan Dynasty is somewhat disputed; the Mongol conquest that resulted in the conquering of all of China began in the 1250's, the last Song emperor was defeated in 1276 CE, and the last remnants of the Song dynasty were crushed in 1279. The first recorded use of the term "Yuan Dynasty" was in 1271, so that is the date that historians use as the beginning of the Great Yuan.

Yuan Dynasty Kublai Khan Study SmarterPortrait of Kublai Khan

Not So Much A Secret:

The primary and most essential text used by historians when analyzing Mongol history is The Secret History of the Mongols, written within the Yuan Dynasty. The manuscript details the life of Genghis Khan and the state of his kingdom after his death, as well as a host of details regarding 13th century Mongol life and culture. Historians recognize a level of embellishment to certain stories within the Secret History, but much of its information is consistent with other accounts from the time.

Amazingly, the manuscript was written in Chinese letters, but was only understandable by Mongol speakers. The Chinese characters held no meaning themselves, but rather provided the phonetic sound of the traditional Mongol language. In that way, the Yuan Dynasty used experiences Chinese scribes to record their history while keeping its information exclusive from the native Chinese people. Today, the Secret History of the Mongols has been published in many languages.

Yuan Dynasty Timeline

The following timeline provides a brief progression of events regarding the Yuan Dynasty:

  • 1227 CE: Genghis Khan died while on campaign. His son Tolui Khan inherits the Mongolian Plateau.

  • 1229-1241: Genghis Khan's third son Ogedei reigned as emperor of the Mongol Empire.

  • 1251-1259: Mongke Khan reigned as emperor of Mongol Empire.

  • 1260: Kublai Khan was proclaimed khagan-emperor.

  • 1271: The Beginning of the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan.

  • 1279: The last remnants of the Song Dynasty were beaten by the Yuan Dynasty, finalizing Mongol conquest of China.

  • 1294: Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, died of illness.

  • 1340's: The Black Death, natural disasters, and weather conditions wracked the Yuan Dynasty.

  • 1351: The Red Turban Rebellion was founded in opposition to Yuan rule.

  • 1368: The Ming Dynasty was founded by the Hongwu Emperor through the Red Turban Rebellion.

  • 1370: The Yuan Dynasty retreats from China to the Mongolian Plateau, ending the Yuan Dynasty in place of the weaker but longer lasting Northern Yuan Dynasty.

Yuan Dynasty Map

Genghis Khan died in 1227, leaving his vast empire to the sons of his wife Borte. In the east, his fourth son Tolui inherited the lands of the Mongolian Plateau, homeland of the fierce horse-riding warriors. The Mongolian Plateau rested above the kingdoms of China; Genghis Khan himself had previously invaded the northern Chinese kingdom of Xi Xia at the beginning of the 13th century. Genghis Khan never conquered the full extent of China, leaving his sons the opportunity for greater eastern expansion.

Yuan Dynasty Map Study Smarter

Map of the Yuan Dynasty. Source: SY, CC-BY-SA-4.0

The map above represents the Yuan Dynasty at its territorial height in 1330 CE. The Yuan Dynasty became the largest Ulus of the divided Mongol Empire, covering the almost the entirety of the eastern half of Asia.

Ulus:

Translated from Mongolian as "state" or "nation", especially in reference to the Mongol Empire and the divided territories inherited by his four sons.

The geography of Asia tells part of the tale of the Yuan Dynasty. Especially under Kublai Khan, the Yuan Dynasty sought to expand its territories in all directions, but Asia itself acted in resistance. The East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Sea of Japan separate Japan from mainland Asia, which forced the Yuan Dynasty to ferry its troops across treacherous waters before battles could even begin. The dense forests of Southeast Asia also caused difficulties to invading Mongol forces. The lands of Siberia in the north were barren and harsh, hardly worth conquering. The Himalayas shielded India, and the open western lands were already under rule of the Mongolian Chagatai Khanate.

Facts About Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty was initially founded by Kublai Khan (aka Khubilai Khan, Setsen Khan, and Emperor Shizu of Yuan), a grandson of Genghis Khan. At the command of emperor Mongke Khan, Kublai Khan led a large force in his invasion of China. Conquering lands from Yunnan to Wuhan and Sichuan, Kublai Khan achieved great victory against an entrenched adversary. After the death of Mongke Khan in 1259, Mongol leaders vied for the title of the khagan-emperor.

The Creation of the Yuan Dynasty

This power vacuum began the Toluid Civil War between Kublai Khan and his brother Ariq Böke. By 1264, Kublai emerged as the victor of the civil war and earned himself the title of fifth khagan-emperor, though he didn't really rule over a unified Mongol Empire. His domain was the Mongolian Plateau and in China, where he began focusing his ambition.

Yuan Dynasty China Study SmarterChinese fresco created during the Yuan Dynasty

Drawing manpower from the Golden Horde and Islamic siege engineers from the Ilkhanate (Kublai did have some influence as the khagan-emperor), the Khan crusaded through China and Korea. In classic Mongol fashion, the invasion was ruthless and fierce, ravaging populations, cities, fortifications, and farmlands across East Asia.

In 1271, Kublai officially founded the Yeke Yuwan Ulus, also known as the Yuan Dynasty. By 1276 CE, it was clear that the last vestiges of the Song Dynasty were in full decline, soon to be entirely replaced by the Mongols. It was the first time in history that China had been completely conquered by a non-Han-Chinese ethnic group.

The Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan

I have heard that one can conquer the empire on horseback, but one cannot govern it on horseback.

-Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan was the Yuan Dynasty's first and most significant ruler. He set the precedent for the Yuan Dynasty as an active player in Eurasian commerce and politics, but his administration also sowed the seeds of the dynasty's eventual demise.

Yuan Dynasty Marco Polo Study SmarterArt depicting Kublai Khan receiving the Polo brothers in court

The following list highlights some key aspects of Kublai Khan's reign in the Yuan Dynasty:

  • The Yuan Dynasty promoted extensive trade with ties in Europe and the Middle East, connecting distant Eurasian lands.
  • Kublai Khan received Marco Polo into his service while Marco Polo stayed in China for seventeen years. Marco Polo would later write the most detailed European account of the Yuan Dynasty.
  • Kublai Khan led the Yuan Dynasty into multiple costly and failed invasions, including three invasions of Vietnam and the invasions of Japan.
  • Kublai Khan sinicized the rule of a Mongol Emperor in China but kept Han-Chinese people at arm's length in political representation. Han-Chinese and Southern Chinese people were placed at the lowest strata in the Yuan Dynasty's four class system.

Sinicization:

The process of non-Han Chinese people becoming exposed to and adopting Han culture, traditions, philosophy, education systems, technology, etc.

Inventions of the Yuan Dynasty:

The Yuan Dynasty is famous for its advancements in math, science, and printing. During the Yuan Dynasty, China implemented an economy of paper money that was easier to track and tax, and harder to counterfeit. (The excessive printing of paper money in the Yuan Dynasty's later years led to massive inflation, however). Jingdezhen porcelain, the iconic blue and white pottery of China, was also invented during the Yuan Dynasty.

The Yuan Dynasty in Decline

Kublai Khan died in 1294. His successors to the Yuan throne led considerably short reigns. Minor rebellions and prospective Han-Chinese officials began sowing discontent throughout the Yuan Dynasty, culminating in the destructive 1340's. Beyond assassinations and political rivalries that split the once centralized government, the Yuan Dynasty was struck by sudden droughts and floods that resulted in crop failure, famine, and a struggling economy. Some historians speculate the natural disasters that the Yuan faced to be a result of the Little Ice Age.

Little Ice Age:

Defined by geologist F.E. Matthes; a period of global cooling and the growth of icebergs from 1300-1850.

Yuan Dynasty Japan Study SmarterArt depicting two Japanese Samurai standing victorious over a fallen Mongol soldier

The Black Death that struck the Yuan Dynasty was just the beginning. In 1351, the Red Turban Rebellion reestablished the Song Dynasty within China, based in Kaifeng. Distracted by the political unrest within their dynasty, the Mongol masters failed to effectively respond to the Red Turban Rebellion. With famine, civil unrest, roaming bandits, and mass discontent of their central government, the people of China quickly turned against the Yuan Dynasty, invoking the Mandate of Heaven.

Mandate of Heaven:

The concept that the ruler of China possessed divine authority and absolute responsibility over their people; if that ruler failed in their duties, the people of China had a right to overthrow them.

By 1368 the Yuan Dynasty was in full decline, its leaders retreating from China to establish the Northern Yuan Dynasty (a completely different empire entirely). In its stead, generals from the Red Turban Rebellion rose to new, administrative positions. The Ming Dynasty was poised to reign over China and diminish the influence the Mongols had once held over the region.

Yuan Dynasty Accomplishments

The Yuan Dynasty dominated China for nearly a century, exhibiting the long-lasting influence of Genghis Khan's rise to power in the early 13th century. The Khan's sons and grandsons inherited almost all of Asia. Of them, Kublai Khan left a lasting legacy in China, one of medieval globalization, expanded commerce, continuous war, religious tolerance, internal strife, and Mongol influence. Although the Yuan Dynasty is often overshadowed by the empires of the Early Modern Era (1450-1750), it stands as the 9th largest (by landmass) empire in world history and is often considered the greatest Ulus of the Mongol Empire following its fracture.

Dynasty Yuan - Key Takeaways

  • The Mongolian Yuan Dynasty ruled in China from 1271 to 1368 as the first Non-Han Chinese rule of the region.
  • Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, was ordered by Mongke Khan to invade China. Later, after becoming emperor-khagan (leader of the Mongol Empire), Kublai conquered all of China, ending the Song Dynasty.
  • Kublai Khan, the first and most significant ruler of the Yuan Dynasty, set the precedent for future Yuan Dynasty rule while also sowing the seeds of its eventual demise through multiple failed invasions and destructive programs.
  • Following Kublai Khan's death, the rulers of the Yuan Dynasty led short reigns that were soon marked by rebellion, internal strife, economic pitfalls, and natural disasters.

Frequently Asked Questions about Dynasty Yuan

The Yuan Dynasty was defeated by many factors, including rebellion, internal strife, economic pitfalls, and natural disasters., but it was the Red Turban Rebellion that officially destabilized the Yuan Dynasty and established the Ming Dynasty. 

The Yuan Dynasty was established in 1271 by Kublai Khan, son of Tolui Khan and grandson of Genghis Khan. 

The Yuan Dynasty had a centralized Mongol government that kept Han-Chinese officials at an arm's length. The role of Yuan Dynasty emperor was sinicized to appease Chinese subjects, but a lack of Han-Chinese political representation sowed discontent. 

The Yuan Dynasty came into power after Kublai Khan, risen as the khagan-emperor of the divided Mongol Empire, crushed the Song Dynasty in the 1260's and 1270's. 

The Yuan Dynasty was not excessively cruel of unjust to the Han-Chinese people, but they did keep them at arms length in social and political discourse, marking Yuan Dynasty role as distinctly Mongolian.

Final Dynasty Yuan Quiz

Question

Define Ulus

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Answer

Translated from Mongolian as "state" or "nation", especially in reference to the Mongol Empire and the divided territories inherited by his four sons.  

Show question

Question

Define Sinicization

Show answer

Answer

The process of non-Han Chinese people becoming exposed to and adopting Han culture, traditions, philosophy, education systems, technology, etc. 

Show question

Question

Define Little Ice Age

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Answer

Defined by geologist F.E. Matthes; a period of global cooling and the growth of icebergs from 1300-1850. 

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Question

What is the name of the first and most significant ruler of the Yuan Dynasty? 

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Answer

Kublai Khan 

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Question

What two countries did Kublai Khan fail to successfully invade? 

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Answer

Japan 

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Question

The Yuan Dynasty originated from the inheritance of Tolui Khan, which was located in which region of Asia? 

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Answer

Mongolian Plateau 

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Question

Which Chinese dynasty was conquered by Kublai Khan, allowing for the establishment of the Yuan Dyansty? 

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Answer

Song Dynasty 

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Question

During what era did the Yuan Dynasty reign in China? 

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Answer

Medieval Era 

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Question

What famous world explorer visited the Yuan Dynasty during Kublai Khan's rule, even becoming a member of his court while staying in China?

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Answer

Marco Polo 

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Question

Define Mandate of Heaven

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Answer

The concept that the ruler of China possessed divine authority and absolute responsibility over their people; if that ruler failed in their duties, the people of China had a right to overthrow them. 

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