Lecture Twenty-One

The Yuan Dynasty

Scope: Khubilai, a grandson of Chinggis, became Great Khan in 1260 and completed the conquest of China in 1279. He ruled as emperor of the Yuan, or “Eternal,” dynasty until his death in 1296. This lecture covers the establishment of the Yuan state and the nature of Mongol rule in China, the situation of the Chinese literati elite under Mongol domination, and the changes in China’s economy and culture brought about by the Mongol conquest. The visit of Marco Polo to China during Khubilai’s reign provides some special insights into this dramatic era.


I. Khubilai Khan came to power in 1260 when the vast territories conquered by the Mongols up to then were divided among the grandsons of Chinggis.

A. Khubilai’s khanate included the old homeland of the Mongols.

1. The former Jin domain in northern China had been subdued in 1234.

2. Mongol forces had also established control over Korea.

B. The Mongols debated how to incorporate China into their empire.

1. Before Khubilai’s reign, some Mongols had advocated killing off the 60 million Chinese in north China to convert their farms into pasture for Mongol ponies.

2. The former Jin official Yelu Quzai managed to convince them that taxing the peasants as a sustainable source of income was preferable.

II. Khubilai completed the conquest of China and made himself emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

A. A series of military campaigns through the 1260s and 1270s led to the final fall of Hangzhou and the end of the Song in 1279.

1. The Mongols had to adapt their usual methods of warfare to deal with the densely populated and geographically challenging situation in southern China.

2. They moved troops from Persia to help with urban warfare.

3. They learned to fight on the rivers and lakes of the south, developing a navy for the first time.

B. To demonstrate his victory over the Song, Khubilai proclaimed himself emperor and adopted the dynastic name of Yuan, meaning “Eternal” or “Everlasting.”

1. This was part of an overall pattern of adapting to local political traditions across the territories conquered by the Mongols.

1. Khubilai set up his capital at the site of modem Beijing and called it Dadu, meaning “Great Capital.”

2. Not all the Mongol leadership supported these actions, and some refused to settle in China, returning to their old nomadic lifestyle in the Mongolian grasslands.

III. The Yuan dynasty developed a unique system of rule in China.

A. The Mongols did not trust the Chinese literati elite.

1. They resented the surprising toughness of the Chinese resistance.

2. They also were unable to read and understand classical Chinese and, thus, felt uneasy about their ability to know what the literati were up to.

B. The Mongols employed people from outside China in the imperial administration.

1. These people were called the semu ren, which means “people with colored eyes,” because many of them came from Persia or Russia and had blue eyes.

2. The semu ren were put into place in provincial and local government offices, where they had authority over the literati officials.

3. Nonetheless, the challenges of administering so vast and populous an empire meant that the Mongols had to rely on the literati to a significant extent.

C. As time went by, the literati both resisted and overcame Mongol discrimination.

1. Literati gentlemen withdrew from public life in large numbers, devoting themselves to cultural pursuits.

2. New styles of literati painting and new schools of calligraphy developed during this time as gentlemen sought to demonstrate their sophistication in contrast to the “barbarian” conquerors.

3. Popular theater developed during this time, as well, with plays often written by literati using subtle historical and literary allusions to encode anti-Mongol messages.

IV. The Venetian Marco Polo visited China during Khubilai’s reign, and his stories of the fabulous East have provided a window on this place and time.

A. Marco Polo traveled to China from Venice in 1272.

1. He journeyed with his father and uncle, who had both been to China earlier.

2. This was a great age for travel and trade overland across the Eurasian landmass, because the Mongols controlled the roads from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to the Pacific.

3. Not only the Polo family, but other traders and representatives of the church, went to China in these years.

B. Marco Polo stayed in China for nearly 20 years.

1. He became, in effect, one of the semu ren and was employed by Khubilai both in local government and as a diplomatic envoy.

2. He served as governor of the former Song capital at Hangzhou.

3. He escorted Mongol princesses sent as brides to India.

C. After his return to Europe, Polo’s stories of China were widely read but often treated as fantasy.

1. His descriptions of the wealth and power of China were seen as unbelievable. His book came to be known as “The Millions,” in reference to the “millions of lies” he was alleged to have told.

2. Nonetheless, Polo’s book inspired great interest in the Far East.

3. Columbus owned a heavily annotated copy of Polo’s book, which contributed to his desire to find a trade route to China.

V. The Mongols ruled China for less than a century after the fall of the Song.

A. After Khubilai died in 1296, there was a succession of weak and incompetent emperors.

1. Power at the court fell increasingly into the hands of Chinese advisors (members of the literati).

2. Across the empire, the literati returned to their dominant role in public life.

3. This was most clearly shown in 1313, when the imperial examination system, which had been abolished by the Mongols, was reinstated.

B. In the middle of the 14th century, a series of disasters struck the empire.

1. The Mongol state was not prepared to cope with powerful challenges.

2. As we shall see in the next lecture, a combination of natural and human factors led to the collapse of the Mongols and the rise of a new dynasty.

Essential Reading:

Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan.

Supplemental Reading:

Elizabeth Endicott-West, Mongolian Rule in China.

Questions to Consider:

1. Even though the Mongols mistrusted the Chinese literati and had an alternative pool of administrative talent in the semu ren, in the end, the literati managed to regain their dominant position in the imperial bureaucracy. Why should this have been the case?

2. It often appears that non-Chinese peoples who conquer China are “assimilated” or, in some way, won over to Chinese civilization. If the Mongols had wanted to avoid this, how could they have protected their identity?

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