Yuan Dynasty

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  • Dates: 1271-1368
  • Chinese/Japanese: 元 (Yuán / Gen)

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty was the first foreign dynasty to rule over all of China. Founded by Kubilai Khan in 1271, the Yuan took Hangzhou (the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty) in 1276, and had complete control of China by 1279. The dynasty eventually fell to a peasant rebellion, the Han Chinese leader of which then established the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

The Yuan Court established a new capital at Dadu (C: "Great Capital"); this marks the origins of the city that is later renamed Beijing. The Court maintained various elements of the nomadic Mongol traditions and identity, while also adopting many elements of Chinese culture and ways of doing things. A dual government on the Liao model was put into place, in which both Mongol and Chinese modes of rule and administration were employed, governing the two separate populations. The government was headed by a chancellor, who was second in authority only to the Emperor, and who oversaw the Six Boards of government: the Boards of Rites, Revenue, Civil Appointments, War, Punishments, and Public Works. Towards the end of the dynasty, this chancellor came to exercise more de facto power than the emperor himself.

A tiered system of social status was implemented based on ethnicity, with Mongols at the top, other nomadic peoples along with Jews, Persians, Syrians, and so forth (色目人, sèmù rén) next, followed by Han Chinese, Koreans, Jurchens, and Khitans from northern China, lumped together under the category of Hanren (漢人). The bottom class were those from southern China, known as nanren ("southern people") or manzi (蠻子, "southern barbarians"). who comprised roughly 80 percent of the population of the Yuan Empire.[1] Han Chinese throughout the empire were forbidden from riding horses, possessing firearms, speaking the Mongol language, or intermarrying with Mongols. Many Chinese scholar-officials retreated to the countryside, excluded from government service, and philosophically opposed to serving under barbarian invaders in any case. The Confucian civil service exams were discontinued after the Mongol invasion, not being brought back into use until a generation later, in 1315.

The dynasty practiced considerable religious tolerance, however; Tibetan Buddhism was adopted as the religion of the Court and of the state, but Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other religions were well tolerated within the empire. This brought considerable cultural influences into Chinese society; the trans-Eurasian "peace" created within the vast Mongol Empire also allowed for a considerable expansion of trade, and the introduction of Byzantine, Islamic, and Persian influences into Chinese art and architecture, particularly in western border regions.[2]

A system of so-called tax farmers (local or regional intermediaries who collected taxes on behalf of the central government) was established, along with an extensive communication system based around a network of post-towns. Metal or wooden paiza tablets ("Mongol passports") were required for one to be permitted use of the inns, supplies, and horses at these post-towns.

The Black Death which ravaged Europe in the 14th century, killing as much as 2/3 of the population in some areas, is generally said to have spread out of southwestern China (Yunnan) or Burma during the Yuan Dynasty. In 1331 alone, the plague may have killed as much as 90% of the population of Northern Zhili province (around Beijing), spreading from there south along the coast, hitting nearly every major city in the empire by the 1350s.[3] Though often overlooked in considerations of Asian history, for its great overshadowing prominence in European history, the bubonic plague may have also contributed, alongside global cooling and the resulting famines, as well as the flooding of the Yellow River Valley, to a reduction of China's population by as much as 1/3, from roughly 120 million in 1300 to around 80 million in 1400.[4] As is common throughout history in times of plague, famine, or the like, this led to uprisings/rebellions, millenarian cults, and a weakening of faith in or loyalty to the government, whose response to the plague - like the response of almost any government to almost any disaster in history - was not sufficient in the eyes of many of the people. Many came to believe the emperor, or the dynasty as a whole, had lost the Mandate of Heaven. The most prominent of these rebellions was by a group known as the Red Turbans, after the red scarves or headbands they wore (not actual turbans).

Following the successful rebellion of Red Turban member Zhu Yuanzhang and establishment of the Ming Dynasty in China in 1368, the Mongol leadership split into number of confederations, under separate khans, one of whom continued to rule in the name of the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongols never again regained control of China, but did continue to threaten and harass the Chinese Empire for more than two hundred years. In 1449, one khan managed to kidnap the Ming Emperor, and Mongol forces threatened the walls of Beijing in the mid-16th century. It was not until 1571 that the Ming managed to establish a formal peace with the Mongols.

Emperors of the Yuan Dynasty

  1. Kubilai Khan (r. 1260-1294)


  1. Emperor Renzong of Yuan, Ayurbarwada (r. 1313-1320)
  2. Emperor Huizong of Yuan (r. 1332-1368)

Preceded by:
Southern Song Dynasty
Yuan Dynasty
Succeeded by:
Ming Dynasty


  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 335-369.
  1. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 226.
  2. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 398-399.
  3. Elman, et al, 430.
  4. Elman, et al, 406-407.; Schirokauer, et al, 228.
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Yuan Dynasty was declared in 1271; Kubilai's predecessors as Great Khan were then named Yuan Dynasty emperors posthumously and retroactively.