An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Yuan Dynasty 元 (1279-1368)

The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) was the house of the great Mongol khan Qubilai (Chinese name Emperor Shizu 元世祖, r. 1260-1294) and his descendants that ruled over China. The Mongol federation under Chinggis Khan (Chinese name Emperor Taizu of the Yuan 元太祖, r. 1206-1227) had created a huge war machine that first conquered the Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227), then the Jin 金 (1115-1234) in northern China, and finally the Southern Song empire 南宋 (1127-1279). More to the west, the central Asian city states, Persia, Baghdad, and the Russian principalities fell victim to the Mongols.

Supported by competent Kitan, Jurchen, and Uyghurian advisors the Mongols established a civilian rule over China, and the country profited from the "Pax Mongolica" that unified a large part of the Eurasian continent. European merchants like the Polo family came to China to profit from the treasures of the east. From the capital Dadu 大都 (Qanbaliq, modern Beijing) the Yuan rulers commanded a whole army of officials. The Chinese population was mainly administered by Central Asian officials, the so-called semuren 色目人 "classified people", and only a few Chinese made it to the highest posts in the Yuan administration. It is therefore believed that popular culture, especially the theatre, flourished during the Yuan period, as a result of the restricted access of the literati to posts in the administration.
The picture of the Mongol regime as brutal and exploitative cannot be substantiated. The Mongol elite successfully cooperated with various ethnic groups to administer a large and economically advanced empire as China. Chinese officials were loyal to the Yuan dynasty, and one of the Yuan emperors reintroduced the examination system and made full use of the traditional Chinese state apparatus. The Yuan dynasty had several important books on statecraft published, which shows that they knew how to run a bureaucratic empire.

The end of the Yuan dynasty is not in first instance to be led back to the many popular rebellions, but to natural disasters (probably as a result of a world-wide "minor ice age" in the fourteenth century), and to the Mongol elite's indecisiveness about their own way of life between the traditional yurt and the Chinese-style palace. After the Mongols's withdrawal to the steppe, the most successful bandit rebel, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Emperor Taizu of the Ming 明太祖, r. 1368-1398), founded the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644).

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the Yuan period, the geography of the empire and its surroundings, provides a list of its rulers, describes the administration and political structure of the empire, and gives insight into the religion and beliefs of the time, as well as the fine arts, the economy, literature and philosophy, and the history of technology and inventions.