The Mongolian Empire: The Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368


The Mongols

   The Mongols were an obscure peoples who lived in the outer reaches of the Gobi Desert in what is now Outer Mongolia. They were a pastoral and tribal people that did not really seem to be of any consequence to neighboring peoples. The Mongols were in fact a group of disunified tribes that would gather regularly during annual migrations; although they elected chiefs over the tribes at these meetings, they never unified into a single people. Their religion focused on a sky-god that ruled over nature deities, similar to Japanese Shinto, and the gods communicated to them through shamans. All that would change however, under the leadership of a powerful and vigorous leader named Timuchin or Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan

   Timuchin was the son of a poor noble in his tribe. Born sometime in the 1160's, he gradually unified the disparate Mongol tribes and, in 1206, was elected Genghis Khan, or "Universal Ruler" (also spelled Chingghis or Jenghiz Khan). He began to vigorously organize the Mongols into a military force through conscription and taxes on the tribes. With his small army (no more than one hundred and twenty thousand men), he managed to conquer far larger armies in densely populated areas.

   Genghis Khan was perhaps one of the greatest military innovators in human history, and his army was perhaps the best-trained horsemen in all of human history. They fought on horseback with incredible efficiency; they could hit targets with a superhuman precision while running at a full gallop. Their speed and efficiency struck terror in their opponents who frequently broke ranks. In addition, Genghis Khan organized his troops into decimal units (one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand), and would send hand signals through the fighting to these decimal units. The result in battle was simply mind-boggling. Genghis Khan could literally move troops around in the heat of a battle as easily as he would move chess pieces. Moreover, his armies were incredibly mobile and could cover superhuman distances with numbing speed. Finally, Genghis Khan was ruthless towards people who resisted the advances of his army. If a town or city fought back, he laid siege to the town and, at its conclusion, would exterminate its inhabitants. When news of these tactics spread, Mongol armies easily and successfully took over towns that would surrender as soon as the Mongols showed their faces. The Mongols literally decimated populations in Western Asia and China as they advanced. As a result of all these tactics, the Mongol armies spread out like wildfire. They marched inexorably south into Chin territory and west into Asia and even Europe. When Genghis Khan died, Mongol armies were poised to conquer Hungary, which they would have accomplished had not their leader died.

   The Mongolian Empire was perhaps the largest empire in human history in terms of geographical expanse. It extended west to east from Poland to Siberia, and north to south from Moscow to the Arabian peninsula and Siberia to Vietnam. For all that, Genghis Khan was primarily interested in conquering China because of its great wealth. While Mongol armies spread quickly west, Genghis Khan preceded cautiously in expanding southward, conquering first the northern Tibetan kingdom and later the Chin empire. When he died in 1227, he had just finished conquering the northern city of Beijing. By 1241, the Mongols had conquered all of northern China.

Kublai Khan

   The Mongolian Empire, so vast in its reach, was separated into four khanates eached ruled by a separate khan and overruled by a Great Khan. The Kipchak Khanate, or Golden Horde, ruled Russia; the Ilkhanate ruled Persia and the Middle East, the Chagatai Khanate ruled over western Asia, and the Great Khanate controlled Mongolia and China.

   In 1260, Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, became Great Khan. Four years later he relocated his capital from Mongolia to Beijing in northern China, and in 1271 he adopted a Chinese dynastic name, the Yuan. Kublai Khan had decided to become the emperor of China and start a new dynasty; within a few short years, the Mongols had conquered all of southern China.

   Initially, the Mongols pretty much ruled over China as bandits, sucking out as much wealth as they could. But Kublai Khan slowly adopted Chinese political structures and political theories. In particular, Kublai Khan built a strong central government in order to cement his authority as a foreign ruler over China. During the T'ang dynasty, the Emperor had slowly become an absolute ruler; Kublai Khan finished that process and made the Emperorship absolutely autocratic.

   Kublai Khan established his capital at Beijing and built a magnificent palace complex for himself, the Forbidden City. An architectural triumph, the Forbidden City contained elements of Arabic, Mongolian, western Asian, and Chinese architectural styles; it also contained a vast area of Mongolian nomadic tents and a playing field for Mongolian horsemanship. The Forbidden City of Kublai Khan, then, was in many ways a protected sanctuary of Mongolian culture. This aloofness from the Chinese exemplified by the Forbidden City was carried over into almost every other aspect of Mongolian rule. Although they adopted some aspects of Chinese culture, the Mongols pretty much refused to learn Chinese. The government, however, was run by Chinese officials selected under the civil service examination. Communication between the upper and lower reaches of government, then, was possible only through translators.

Yuan Philosophy

   The single most striking aspect of the Yuan is not only the survival of Chinese culture under a vastly foreign rule, but its singular vitality and growth. To be sure, the Yuan had steadily adopted Chinese ways of thinking. Before the conquest of China, Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai (1189-1243), an advisor to the Mongol Khan Ögödei, reformed the financial adminstration along the lines of its Chinese form. In 1271, Kublai Khan adopted a Chinese dynastic name, and in 1315, under the Emperor Ayurbarwada (Jen-tsung, 1311-1320), the civil service examination was reinstituted. All of these indicate a steady sinicization of the Mongolian rule. At the same time, the Mongols did not impose their own pastoral lifestyle, social structure, or religion on the Chinese.

   The traditional philosophies and religions of China continued unabated under Mongol rule. Buddhism in particular found a welcome home among the Mongols who had in part adopted it. Taoism remained vital throughout China, and Confucianism continued. However, the foreign rule of the Mongols allowed for a certain amount of revolution and renewal in Chinese thought. Because the Mongols held Confucianism in contempt in the early years of their rule, the new philosophy of Neo-Confucians, founded in the last century of Sung rule, took hold in China and eventually eclipsed the older forms of Confucianism. The new examination system of 1315 was based entirely on Neo-Confucianism thus enshrining it as the state philosophy for many centuries.

   Curiously, the Mongols, though Buddhist, did not really support or patronize Buddhism, which was largely left to its own devices. They favored Tibetan Buddhism but really did not financially support the monasteries. When the Mongol rulers decided that too many Buddhists were escaping military service, they instituted a literacy test on Buddhist scriptures. Anyone who couldn't demonstrate literacy in the scriptures lost their military exemption. This put the Mongol rulers in direct conflict with the major Buddhist masters; the central school of Buddhism was Ch'an, or "Meditation" Buddhism. It stressed the primacy of the master over scripture and the silent transmission of religious truth. For that reason, Ch'an Buddhism had no written doctrine. Under pressure from the Mongols, the Ch'an Buddhists began to record their doctrine in a series formulations called kung-an or, in Japanese, the koan.

   Nonetheless, the Mongol rulers were very preoccupied with religions. Kublai Khan in particular invited all sorts of faiths to debate at his court. He allowed Nestorian Christians and Roman Catholics to set up missions, as well as Tibetan lamas, Muslims, and Hindus. The Yuan period, in fact, is one of vital cultural transmission between China and the rest of the world. Europe formally met China during the reign of Kublai Khan with the arriuval of Marco Polo, an Italian adventurer, who served as an official in Kublai's court from 1275-1291. For all this vital interaction with foreign cultures, very little seems to have rubbed off on Chinese culture. The cultural interaction was not really a cultural exchange, for the situation was perhaps too unstable. The Yuan and the Chinese had no cultural direction, no syncretic goal that they were aiming at, so the cultural interaction never really got beyond the formal practice of simple disagreement and argument.

The Fall of the Yuan

   The Yuan was the shortest lived of the major dynasties. From the time that Kublai occupied Beijing in 1264 to the fall of the dynasty in 1368, a mere hundred years had passed. Kublai was a highly successful emperor as was his son, but the later Yuan emperors could not stop the slide into powerlessness. For one thing, the Beijing Khans lost legitimacy among the Mongols still in Mongolia who thought they had become too Chinese. The fourteenth century is punctuated by Mongolian rebellions against the Yuan. On the other hand, the Chinese never accepted the Yuan as a legitimate dynasty but regarded them rather as bandits or an occupying army. The failure to learn Chinese and integrate themselves into Chinese culture greatly undermined the Mongol rulers. As with all Chinese dynasties, nature conspired in the downfall; the Yellow River changed course and flooded irrigation canals and so brought on massive famine in the 1340's. The decline of the Yuan coincided with similar declines in all the other Khanates throughout Asia.   Finally, a peasant, Chu Yuan-chang, led a rebel army against the Yuan. He had lost most of his family in the famine, and had spent part of his life as a monk and then as a bandit leader. He took Beijing in 1368 and the Yuan emperor fled to Shangtu. When he drove the Yuan from Shangtu back to Mongolia, he declared himself the founder of a new dynasty: the Ming (1369-1644).

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-29-97