Yuan dynasty


The Yuan Dynasty (in Mongolian mean (en) ᠳᠠᠢᠦᠨᠦᠯᠦᠰ, Dai Ön Ulus, literally “Great Yuan State”), was a Mongolian dynasty founded according to Chinese tradition in 1271 by Kubilai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, and which ruled China until 1368.

Protocolically, in China, it succeeds the Song Dynasty and precedes the Ming Dynasty. Although the Mongols had dominated North China since Genghis Khan, Khubilai made it start retroactively to the reign of his grandfather as the official founder of the dynasty. However, as the Song held the great seal of empire, it is made to begin with the abdication of Hangzhou (1276) or the completion of the conquest of South China (1279).

The Yuan emperor, in addition to being emperor of China, was also Great Khan of the Mongols, and as such he ruled over Mongolia and was suzerain of the three khanates that had institutionalized the apanages of Genghis” sons: the Khanate of Djaghatai in Central Asia, the Golden Horde over present-day Russia and Ukraine, and the Ilkhanate of Persia including Iraq and most of present-day Turkey and Afghanistan. As such, the Yuan Empire was the Empire of the Great Khan. However, quite soon the submission of the khanates became purely nominal, each pursuing its own policy and often going to war with the other.

Although 1271 is the date of Kubilai Khan”s proclamation of the beginning of the dynasty, there are Chinese documents dated to the “years of Yuan Shizu” (元世祖, Kubilai) before 1271.

Several other dates are therefore proposed for the beginning of the dynasty:

In 1271, Kubilai Khan imposed the name Great Yuan (Wade: Ta-Yüan), thus founding the Yuan dynasty. “Dà Yuán” (lit. “Great is Qián, the Primordial”) in the Commentary section of the Classic of Changes. The Mongolian language counterpart is Dai Ön Ulus, also rendered as Ikh Yuan Üls or Yekhe Yuan Ulus. In Mongolian, Dai Ön (Middle Mongolian transliteration of Chinese “Dà Yuán”) is often used in conjunction with Yeke Mongghul Ulus (lit. “Great Mongolian State”), resulting in ᠳᠠᠢᠦᠨᠶᠡᠬᠡᠮᠣᠩᠭᠣᠯᠦᠯᠦᠰ (Dai Ön Yeqe Mongɣul Ulus), or “Great Yuan Great Mongolian State.”

The Yuan Dynasty is also known by Westerners as the “Mongol Dynasty” or the “Mongol Dynasty of China”, just as the Qing Dynasty is also called in the West the “Manchu Dynasty” or the “Manchu Dynasty of China”. The Yuan is sometimes also known as the “Empire of the Great Khan” or the “Khanate of the Great Khan” which is present on some Yuan maps, since the Yuan Emperors bear the title of Khagan (Great Khan), even if it is purely nominal. Nevertheless, both terms may also refer to the Khanate of the Mongol Empire directly ruled by the Great Khans before the effective establishment of the Yuan dynasty by Kubilai Khan in 1271.

Historical sources

The History of the Yuan, Yuan Shi, the official history of the Yuan Dynasty, was written in 1370 under the editorship of Song Lian (宋濂). Following the structure of the official histories, it consists of a set of thematic treatises and biographies. This work, completed very quickly, received much criticism during the Qing Dynasty, and was the subject of a corrected version, the New History of the Yuan, Xin Yuanshi, by Ke Shaomin, completed in 1920. Marco Polo”s journey to China also took place during this dynasty, giving a more European view of it. The Mongol invasions of Japan were also made by this dynasty, which allowed to keep different testimonies of this period from the Japanese point of view.

The Mongols and China before Kubilai Khan

Temüjin, a Mongolian clan chief, succeeded in unifying all the Mongolian tribes under his command. In 1206, a Qurultay, awarded him the title of Khagan, that is to say “Great Khan” or “Khan of the Khan”, thus recognizing his supremacy over the other Mongol chiefs. He then took the title of Genghis Khan, and undertook the conquest of neighboring kingdoms, marking the beginning of the expansion of the Mongol Empire.

Between 1203 and 1209, even before the end of the unification of the Mongol people, he launched his first three campaigns against the Western Xia, Tanguts who controlled the northwest of China. Defeated, the Xia emperor became the vassal of the Mongols and promised to join his troops to those of the Khan if necessary.

This opportunity comes quickly, as a few years later Genghis Khan attacks the Jürchens of the Jin Dynasty, who control the north and north-̈east of China. The first major battle between the Mongols and the Jürchens was the Battle of Yehuling, which took place in 1211. From this date to 1215, the Mongols ravaged North China and seized Manchuria, the homeland of the Jurchens. Eventually, the Jin lost the northern half of their empire and found themselves caught between two enemies: the Mongols in the north and the Chinese Song Dynasty in the south.

Between 1216 and 1221, the Jin enjoyed a relative respite, Genghis Khan being occupied in the west by the conquest of the Kara-Khitans and the Khorezmian empire. When he returned to China, it was to attack again the Western Xia, who had revolted against the Mongols. He died on August 18, 1227 during the siege of Xingqing, the capital of the Xia.

It was Ögedeï, the third son of Genghis Khan, who succeeded his father and became Great Khan. His first act was to complete the campaign against the Xia launched by his father: their capital fell and the Tangut kingdom was wiped out before the end of the year.

In 1231, the Mongols invaded the Goryeo kingdom, the king signed his surrender in 1232 and a general representing the Mongol emperor settled in Kaesong, the capital. The head of the government Choe U (en) fled to the island of Kanghwa in the same year and asked the population to resist. When the Mongol general died, a second invasion was launched.

Still in 1231, Ögedeï restarted the war against the Jin Dynasty which, meanwhile, had used its last forces in a useless war against the Song Dynasty. The conflict ends in 1234, with the fall of Kaifeng, the last capital of Jin and the disappearance of the Jurchen dynasty. During the war, Ögedei offered his nephew Kubilai a post in Xingzhou, Hebei. Kubilai could not read Chinese, but his mother Sorghaghtani had attached the services of several Han teachers to him from an early age. At his new post, he sought the advice of Buddhist and Confucian Chinese advisors.

Kubilai was not the only one to surround himself with Chinese advisors, as many Chinese and Khitan had defected to the Mongols to fight the Jin since the war began. For example, two Chinese chiefs, Shi Tianze and Liu Heima (劉黑馬, a.k.a. Liu Ni), and Khitan chief Xiao Zhala (蕭札剌) defected and were given command of 3 Tümens in the Mongol army during Ogedei”s reign. There are a total of 4 Han (Chinese) Tümens and 3 Khitan Tümens in the Mongol army, with each Tümen being a division of 10,000 soldiers. In Ögedei”s time, the Khitan Tümens were under the command of generals Shimobeidier (石抹孛迭兒), Tabuyir (塔不已兒), and Zhongxi, the son of Xiaozhacizhizi (蕭札刺之子重喜). As for the Han Tümens, they are commanded by generals Zhang Rou, Yan Shi, Shi Tianze and Liu Heima.

During his reign, the second Kaghan also launched the third invasion of the Goryeo kingdom, as well as the beginning of the Song Dynasty”s invasion of South China. Outside China, he also organized military expeditions to the Middle East and Europe.

Ögedeï died suddenly on December 11, 1241, during a hunting party. His widow Töregene assumed the regency from 1241 to 1246, when their son Güyük was elected and reigned for two years. It was then the turn of Möngke, another grandson of Genghis Khan to take the reins of power.

Möngke succeeded Güyük in 1251. Once in power, he entrusted his brother Kubilai with the management of the Mongol territories in China. Kubilai built schools to train Confucian scholars, issued banknotes, revived Chinese rituals and approved policies that stimulated agricultural and commercial growth. Kubilai chose the city of Kaiping in Inner Mongolia as his capital, later renamed Shangdu. He entrusted the renovation of his new capital to Liu Binzhong, a former Chan monk with engineering skills.

As for his foreign policy, Möngke continued the policy of territorial expansion of his predecessors. Thus, in 1253, the Mongols took control of Tibet and in 1254, a fourth invasion of Korea was launched. But this was not enough to subdue the Goryeo, and Möngke had to launch a fifth and a sixth campaign before the Goryeo king finally surrendered to the Mongols in 1258.

The fourth Kaghan continued the war against the Song dynasty initiated by Ögedeï, at the cost of a considerable deployment of forces: the Mongol army that invaded southern China was much larger than the one sent to invade the Middle East in 1256. When he left to help Kubilai in the war against the Song, Möngke entrusted his younger brother Ariq Boqa with the administration of the center of the empire and Karakorum. This is a very important aspect of the city”s development, as it is a very important part of the city”s economy, as it is a very important part of the city”s economy. But Kubilai, who also aims at the throne, also convenes a Qurultay, in Kaiping, his personal capital, which also designates him Kaghan. It is the beginning of a civil war which will set the Mongolian empire on fire.

In order to defeat his brother and rival, Kubilai had to obtain the cooperation of his Chinese subjects to ensure the supply of his army, which had enormous needs in various resources. He strengthened his popularity with his subjects by modeling his government on the bureaucracy of traditional Chinese dynasties and adopting the name of Zhongtong era, which means “moderate rule”. While Ariq was able to control larger territories than Kubilai and was master of Mongolia, the Mongol homeland, he was hampered by a chronic lack of supplies for his soldiers. After four years of fighting, he surrendered in 1264. But even if Kubilai is victorious, he is not for all that the master of all the Mongol empire. Indeed, the three western khanates (the Golden Horde, the Khanate of Djaghataï and the Ilkhanat) all acted in an autonomous way, the Ilkhans being even the only ones to recognize Kubilai as Kaghan. Worse, the Ilkhanat and the Golden Horde continue to fight their own war, without the new Kaghan being able to do anything about it. In short, the troubles of the civil war have definitively divided the Mongolian empire.

Kubilai Khan

Even if he was proclaimed Kaghan in 1260 by a Qurultay, Kubilai had to wait for his victory over Ariq in 1264 to really accede to the khanate, having almost conquered the whole of China. The instability troubles the first years of his reign. Indeed, Kaidu, Ögedei”s grandson, refused to submit and threatened the western border of Kubilai”s domain, while the hostile but weakened Song dynasty remained an obstacle in the south. Kubilai first secured his northeastern border in 1259 by installing Prince Wonjong, who had been his hostage, on the throne of Goryeo, which became a vassal state, paying tribute to the Mongols. He also secured his hold on Tibet by establishing in 1264 at Khanbalik a Control Commission named in Chinese 总制院

But Kubilai is also threatened by internal unrest. Li Tan, the son-in-law of a powerful official, started a revolt against the Mongol regime in 1262. After successfully suppressing the revolt, Kubilai reduced the influence of Han advisors in his court, fearing that his dependence on the Chinese authorities would make him vulnerable to future revolts and defections to the Song.

After 1262, Kubilai”s government was a compromise between preserving Mongol interests in China and satisfying the demands of his Chinese subjects. He instituted the reforms proposed by his Chinese advisors by centralizing the bureaucracy, extending the circulation of banknotes and maintaining the traditional salt and iron monopolies. He recreated the imperial secretariat and kept the local administrative structure inherited from the ancient Chinese dynasties. However, Kubilai rejected proposals to revive the Confucian imperial examinations and divided Yuan society into three, then four classes, with the Han occupying the lowest rank. Finally, Kubilai”s Chinese advisors still held significant power in the government, but their official rank was more than unclear.

As early as 1264, Kubilai prepares the move of the Mongolian capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Khanbalik, by building a new city near Zhongdu, the former capital of the Jurchen, (now Beijing) from 1266. He made undertake great works in his new capital particularly in the zone of the palace, where gardens with artificial lakes and bridges are created. As he had already done in Kaiping, he entrusted the organization and supervision of the works to Liu Binzhong. When the capital was transferred to Khanbalik, Kaipingfu became Shangdu (“old capital” or “northern capital”, better known as Xanadu), which served for a time as his summer residence.

In 1271, Kubilai formally claimed the Mandate of Heaven and declared 1272 to be the first year of the Great Yuan (Chinese: 大元) in the purest style of the ancient Chinese dynasties. The name of the dynasty comes from the I Ching and describes the “origin of the universe” or a “primary force”. Kubilai proclaims Khanbalik “Daidu” (lit. “Great Capital”) of the dynasty. The era name is changed to Zhiyuan to announce a new era of Chinese history. The adoption of a dynastic name legitimizes the Mongolian regime by integrating it into the succession of dynasties that marks traditional Chinese politics. Khubilai worked on his public image as a wise emperor by following the rituals of Confucian decorum and ancestor veneration, while maintaining his roots as a master of the steppe peoples.

Kubilai Khan promoted commercial, scientific and cultural growth. He supported the merchants of the Silk Road trade network by protecting the Mongolian postal system, building infrastructure, providing loans to finance trade caravans, and encouraging the circulation of bank bills (pinyin: Chāo). At the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols continued to issue coins, but during the reign of Külüg Khan coins were completely replaced by paper money. It is only during the reign of Togoontomor that the government of the Yuan dynasty tried to put copper coins back into circulation. The Pax Mongolica, the “Mongolian peace”, allows the diffusion of technologies, goods and culture between China and the West. Kubilai enlarged the Grand Canal from the south of China to Daidu

After having strengthened his government in the north of China, Kubilai pursued an expansionist policy in line with the tradition of Mongol and Chinese imperialism. In the South, he launched a new massive offensive against the Song dynasty. Continuing the policy of military assimilation begun at the time of Genghis Khan, the Yuan dynasty created a “Han Army” (traditional Chinese: 漢軍) from the troops of the defunct Jin dynasty and a “Newly Subdued Army” (traditional Chinese: 新附軍), from the troops of the defecting Song. Kubilai laid siege to Xiangyang between 1268 and 1273, a fortified city that was the last obstacle preventing him from seizing the rich Yangtze River basin. At the same time, he launched an unsuccessful naval expedition against Japan in 1274. If Japan remained out of his reach, he advanced into southern China. In 1276, Kubilai attacked and took Lin”an (Hangzhou), which was both the capital of the Song and the richest city in China. While he succeeded in capturing the empress and the crown prince, the court managed to flee to the south and enthrone a young child, the brother of the deposed emperor, who became the Song Bing emperor. The Song loyalists were finally defeated by the Mongols at the battle of Yamen in 1279. The last Song emperor drowned at the end of the battle, putting an end to the Song dynasty. The conquest of the Song territories allowed the total reunification of northern and southern China for the first time in three hundred years. In parallel with his wars of expansion, from 1268 Kubilai had to deal with an open war with his former ally Qaidu, who was trying to seize the Khanate of Jaghatai.

Kubilai”s government faced financial difficulties after 1279, as wars and construction projects drained the Mongol treasury. In addition, corruption and political scandals hampered efforts to collect and enforce tax revenues. Poorly managed military expeditions followed the financial problems. Kubilai”s second invasion of Japan in 1281 fails because of an unexpected typhoon, and the expeditions the Kaghan organizes against Đại Việt, Champa, and Java all fail one after another. However, he won a Pyrrhic victory against Burma. These expeditions are hampered by disease, an inhospitable climate and tropical terrain unsuited to Mongol cavalry warfare. The Trần dynasty that ruled the Đại Việt defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Bạch Đằng. This being the case, even though they are not defeated, the Đại Việt, Burma, and Champa recognize Mongol hegemony and establish tributary relations with the Yuan dynasty.

At the same time, internal conflicts threatened Kubilai within his empire and he was obliged to put down rebellions challenging his power in Tibet and in the northeast. His favorite wife died in 1281 and his heir in 1285. Kubilai is discouraged and neglects his duties as emperor. He fell ill in 1293 and died on 18 February 1294, his descendants taking over the title of khagan of the Yuan Dynasty.

The successors of Kubilai

After the conquest of the Dali kingdom in 1253, the members of the former ruling dynasty, the Duan, were given the title of Maharajah. The local chiefs were appointed Tusi, which made them imperial officials in charge of implementing the government”s decisions. This system set up by the Yuan will be taken over during the centuries by the Ming and Qing dynasties, mainly in the province of Yunnan, before being abolished in the 20th century. The succession to the throne of the Yuan Dynasty will quickly prove to be an insoluble problem, causing over the years and reigns many conflicts and internal struggles. This began at the end of Kubilai”s reign. The latter had named his eldest son, Zhenjin, crown prince, but the son died before the father, in 1285. In the absence of a designated successor, Zhenjin”s third son took the throne, with the support of his mother Kökejin and the minister Bayan, and reigned under the name of Temür Khan, or Emperor Chengzong, from 1294 to 1307. Temür Khan decided to preserve and continue much of what his grandfather had established. He also made peace with Qaido”s successor, thus ending the war that had been going on since 1268, with all the western Mongolian khanates as well as with neighboring countries such as Vietnam, which nominally recognized his suzerainty and paid tribute to the Yuan for a few decades. However, the corruption that had begun to spread at the end of Kubilai”s reign began to grow during the reign of Temür Khan.

Külüg Khan (Emperor Wuzong) ascended the throne after the death of Temür Khan. Unlike his predecessor, he did not continue Kubilai”s policies, largely rejecting his aims. More importantly, he introduced a policy of monetary reforms. During his short reign (1307-11), the government fell into financial difficulties, partly because of the bad decisions made by Külüg. At the time of his death, China was heavily indebted and the Yuan Court faced popular discontent.

Buyantu Khan (Ayurbarwada), the fourth Yuan emperor, was a competent emperor. He was the first Yuan emperor since Kubilai to actively support and adopt the dominant Chinese culture, which provoked the discontent of a part of the Mongolian elite. His mentor was Li Meng, a Confucian scholar. He carried out many reforms, including the liquidation of the Department of State Affairs (traditional Chinese: 尚書省), which resulted in the execution of five of the highest officials in the administration. Beginning in 1313, traditional imperial examinations were reintroduced for future officials, testing their knowledge of important historical works. In addition, he codified much of the law and had a number of Chinese books and works published or translated.

Emperor Gegeen Khan, the son and successor of Ayurbarwada, reigned for only two years, from 1321 to 1323. He continued his father”s policy of reforming the government on the basis of Confucian principles, with the help of his new grand chancellor Baiju. During his reign, he officially promulgated the Da Yuan Tong Zhi (lit. “Comprehensive Institutions of the Great Yuan”), an extensive set of codes and regulations of the Yuan Dynasty, the drafting of which had begun during the reign of his father. Gegeen was assassinated in a coup involving five princes of a rival faction, perhaps the steppe elite opposed to Confucian reforms. They placed Yesün Temür Khan (or Taidingdi) on the throne but, after an unsuccessful attempt to calm the princes, he too fell victim to regicide.

Until the reign of Yesün Temür, China had been relatively untouched by popular rebellions since the end of the reign of Kubilai. However, the Yuan dynasty then began to lose control of the regions inhabited by ethnic minorities. The outbreak of these revolts and the ensuing repression aggravated the financial difficulties of the Yuan government, which had to adopt measures to increase revenue, such as the sale of certain official posts, and to reduce its expenditure on certain budget items.

When Yesün Temür died in Shangdu in 1328, Tugh Temür was recalled to Khanbalik by the Qipchaq commander, El Temür. He ascended the throne as Tövtömör Khan (Wenzong emperor) in Khanbalik, while Yesün Temür”s son Ragibagh Khan also ascended the throne in Shangdu with the support of Dawlat Shah, Yesün Temür”s favorite servant. Obtaining the support of princes and officers from northern China and other regions of the Yuan empire, Tugh Temür, based in Khanbalik, started and won a civil war against Ragibagh, known as the War of the Two Capitals. Thereafter, Tugh Temür abdicated in favor of his brother Kusala, supported by Eljigidey, the Khan of the Khanate of Djaghataï, and announced his intention to welcome him in Khanbalik. However, Kusala died suddenly only four days after a banquet with Tugh Temür, perhaps after being poisoned by El Temür. What is certain is that Tugh Temür finally returns to the throne and sends delegates to the western Mongol Khanates (the Golden Horde, the Khanate of Djaghataï and the Ilkhanat) to be accepted as the suzerain of the Mongol world. However, these messages cannot hide the fact that he is mainly a puppet of the powerful El Temür during his last three years of reign. The latter purges pro-Kusala officials and gives power to warlords, whose despotic rule clearly marks the decline of the dynasty.

As the bureaucracy is dominated by El Temür, Tugh Temür is best known for his cultural contribution to the Yuan legacy. He adopted many measures to honor Confucianism and promote Chinese cultural values. His most concrete effort to patronize Chinese education is the founding of the Academy of the Star Pavilion of Literature (Traditional Chinese: 奎章閣學士院), founded in the spring of 1329 and intended to undertake “a number of tasks related to the transmission of high Confucian culture to the Mongolian imperial establishment.” The academy is responsible for compiling and publishing a number of books, but its most important achievement is the compilation of a vast institutional compendium named Jingshi Dadian (Traditional Chinese: 《經世大典》). Tugh Temür supports Zhu Xi”s Neo-Confucianism and is also devoted to Buddhism.

After the death of Tugh Temür in 1332 and the subsequent death of Rinchinbal (emperor Ningzong) in the same year, Togoontomor (emperor Huizong), then aged 13, was recalled from Guangxi and ascended the throne. He is the ninth and last successor of Kubilai Khan on the throne of China. After the death of El Temür, Bayan became as powerful an official as El Temür had been at the beginning of his long reign. As he grew up, Togoontomor came to disapprove of Bayan”s autocratic rule. In 1340, he allied himself with Toqto”a, a nephew of Bayan who disagreed with his uncle, and banished the overly powerful official after a coup. With Bayan”s removal, the Toqto”a took over the court. His first administration clearly brought a breath of fresh air into the Yuan Court and gave the first signs of a new and positive direction in the central government. One of his successful projects was to complete the official histories of the Liao, Jin and Song dynasties, which were finished in 1345. However, Toqto”a resigned from his post, with Togoontomor”s approval, marking the end of his first administration. He was not recalled to government until 1349.

Decline of the empire

The last years of the Yuan dynasty were marked by conflict, famine and bitterness among the population, but also by the ravages of the Black Death. Over time, Kubilai Khan”s successors lost all influence over the other Mongol lands in Asia, while Mongols living outside the Middle Kingdom considered them too Chinese. Gradually, they also lost influence in China. The reigns of the last Yuan emperors were short and marked by intrigues and rivalries. Not interested in administration, they cut themselves off from both the army and the population, while China was torn apart by dissension and unrest. The outlaws ravaged the country without having to fear the intervention of the weakening Yuan armies.

From the late 1340s onwards, rural populations suffer from frequent natural disasters such as droughts, floods and the resulting famines. The lack of an effective government policy to alleviate these disasters led to a loss of popular support. In 1351, the Red Turban Rebellion, one branch of which originated from the White Lotus Sect, began and developed into a national uprising. Chinese tradition claims that the signal for the anti-Mongol insurrection was given on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival by messages hidden in moon cakes, eaten only by the Hans. In 1354, when Toghtogha took command of a large army to crush the Red Turbans, Togoontomor suddenly dismissed him for fear of being betrayed. The result was the restoration of Togoontomor”s power on the one hand, and a rapid weakening of the central administration on the other. He had no choice but to rely on the military power of local warlords and gradually lost interest in politics. He eventually stopped intervening in political struggles. The coup de grace was delivered by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, who studied Mongolian military techniques and took the lead of the Red Turban movement. As the rebels approached Khanbalik, Togoontomor fled to Shangdu in 1368. He tried to retake Khanbalik, in vain. He died in Yingchang (this city was located in the current Inner Mongolia) two years later, in 1370. The Chinese armies started to attack Mongolia in 1380 and the capital, Karakorum, fell in 1388.

The prince of Liang, Basalawarmi, established a principality in Yunnan and Guizhou, which was reduced by arms in 1381. In 1387, the Yuan forces, commanded by Naghachu and now in Manchuria, surrendered to the Ming dynasty. What is left of the Yuan now rules only Mongolia and, although the name Great Yuan (大元) is officially retained, from this date onwards they are known as the Northern Yuan Dynasty.

Some descendants of the Yuan royal family still live in Henan province.

Functioning of the Empire

The Mongol rulers never succeeded in finding their marks, divided since Kubilai between the desire to assert their superiority as a ruling caste and that of being true emperors of China who mastered the functioning of the country. Kubilai set up a system which consisted in using the already existing networks (administration, religious structures etc.) while keeping the maximum control thanks to an increased concentration of powers in centralized administrative services or in the hands of trusted persons, and by imposing restrictions on the participation of Han in the administration.

The population was indeed divided into four distinct ethnic castes. The Mongols constituted the first, and the other so-called “colored-eyed” peoples from Central Asia or even Europe, the second. The Chinese (Han), Jurchens and Manchus of the former Jin territory, known as “Northern”, were part of the third caste, the Chinese and ethnic groups living in the former territory of the Southern Song constituted the last caste.

All important positions were reserved for Mongols. Intermarriage between Mongols and other castes was forbidden, thus maintaining the ethnic separation and alien nature of the imperial family and nobility. In the predominantly Han part of the territory, the Yuan chose non-Han as administrative employees whenever possible, including foreigners, sometimes Europeans. Han officials were often sent to the far reaches of the empire.

This regime was later partially relaxed, for example by Renzong who re-instated in 1313 the examinations for access to the civil service, thus beginning the Mongolian exclusivity on certain functions.

Never truly Chinese, the Yuan emperors nevertheless had Chinese tutors and advisors who influenced them. Chengzong (成宗) and Renzong (仁宗)in particular were keen to develop their new domain. The latter, educated by Li Meng (李孟) a neo-Confucianist, was also influenced by the Taoists who had succeeded in persuading him that, born on the birthday of the god Zhenwu, he was its incarnation. He had great works done on the Wudang mountain in his honor. But in general, the Yuan emperors were considered too sinicized by the Mongolian nobles and still too Mongolian by the Chinese.

A great tolerance was observed on behalf of the Mongols towards the native religions.

Cultural developments

During the Yuan dynasty many influences enriched the culture and knowledge.

The answer given by Möngke Khan to William of Rubrouck who came to convert him clearly expresses the Mongols” policy of religious freedom. While adopting Tibetan Buddhism, the emperors and nobility retained many of their traditions, such as ceremonies to the sky god Tenggeri accompanied by libations of mare”s milk alcohol (kumiz) before battles. Kubilai maintained shamans at court. The emperors delegated the control of all Taoism to two schools, Quanzhen Dao in the north of the Chang Jiang and Zhengyi Dao in the south, leading to the regrouping of many movements under their banner. Even today, these two denominations cover the majority of Taoist schools.

Although the examination system was abolished and the scholars were supplanted by Mongol nobility or foreigners, the Yuan emperors showed respect for the Confucian temple and had it renovated. When the examination system was restored in 1315, they imposed the simpler standardized version of Zhu Xi, confirming the dominant position of neo-Confucianism in the Confucian set. This arrangement was taken over by the Ming.

Shortly before the foundation of the dynasty, alerted by the Mongolian incursions into Europe, Saint Louis and the Pope had sent Franciscan ambassadors to the Khan, Guillaume de Rubrouck and Jean de Plan Carpin, to sound out his intentions and attempt (in vain) to convert him.

Writing of the Yuan Dynasty

Kubilai had the ambition to create a new script to unify the multilingual script of the Mongol Empire. He entrusted this task to Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235 – 1280), a Tibetan lama of the Sakyapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. In response, Chögyal Phagpa modified the traditional Tibetan script and created a new series of characters called the Phagspa script which was finalized in 1268. Kubilai Khan decided to use the Phagspa script as the official script of the empire, including when he became emperor of China in 1271, instead of the Chinese ideograms. The Phagspa script was used for 110 years and is believed to have influenced the development of the modern Korean script. Phagspa script fell into disuse after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368. Many edicts and regulations tried to popularize the Phagspa script. It can be found on official documents of the time: money orders, passports, official seals (they will continue to be used by monks until the 20th century) and some porcelains, which can help to date these objects. This script is still used, along with Mongolian Bitchig (also called Uyghur alphabet) and Cyrillic Mongolian on Mongolian banknotes.

Languages of the Yuan Dynasty

The administration of the Yuan Empire considers three official languages, Mongolian, Chinese and Persian

Visual Arts

Another feature specific to the Yuan period: the archaism that can be seen in Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) allows him to assert, as in this page with “Rocks and forests”, where rocks and tree trunks are evoked with a dry and rapid stroke that comes from the “evanescent white” line of calligraphy. In the group of a Tungus gentleman and his horse he uses another expressive register, in sketch style he knows how to evoke the stormy wind, combined with a precise brush, for the clothes in particular. The archaism that makes him refer to artists like Dong Yuan, or older ones, from the 5th and 6th centuries (consultable in the imperial collection in Beijing), means for him simplicity in the forms of expression and economy of means in the representation of the essence of things, caught in time and perpetual change. He remained a model for many generations. He was also one of the first to calligraph on the same support a personal literary composition. And as a court painter, we can notice that his paintings of horses were appreciated by those rulers who had conquered their empire on horseback.

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  1. Dynastie Yuan
  2. Yuan dynasty