World History 1 249 - 16.1.1 China in the Early Fourteenth Century

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Mongol realm had expanded its reach through a broad swath of Eurasia, effectively becoming the largest land-based empire in history. First uniting the Mongol tribes into a common fighting force with a goal of expanding their control beyond their homeland, the Mongols extended their conquest into China across the North China plain in 1212–1213, leaving many cities in ruin. It was not until Chinggis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan came to power, however, that the Mongol invasion of southern China was complete (Figure 16.3).

A map of Asia is shown. In the southwest, the Arabian Sea and the Laccadive Sea are labelled. In the south, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, and the South China Sea are labelled. In the southeast, the Sulu Sea, the Celebes Sea, and the Philippine Sea are labelled. In the northeast, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the Sea of Japan (East Sea) are labelled. Many rivers are also labelled throughout the map. In the north, the Ozero Baykal (Lake Baikal) is labelled. India is labelled in the southwest, Mongolia is labelled in the north, and China is labelled in the east. In northwest Asia, an area is labelled “Kipchaq Khanate,” north of the Aral Sea and the Balqash Koli (Lake Balkhash). In the west, two areas are labelled “Khwarezm” and “Western Liao Empire.” In northern China, an area is labelled “Western Xia” and in southeastern China an area is labelled “Song Empire” by the Taiwan Strait. In eastern Mongolia, an area is labelled “Jurchen Jin” west of the Sea of Japan. From a red dot in Mongolia, seven black arrows head in various directions throughout Asia. Two head west – one toward the Western Liao Empire and the other one splitting into two – one northwest to the Kipchaq Khanate and one to the Western Liao Empire and then splitting into a north and south arrow, the south heading toward Khwarezm. Three arrows head south toward China, and crisscross throughout the Song Empire, as well as one going through the Taiwan Strait. The last two arrows head east, then one heads northeast and the other through the Jurchen Jin Empire and into the island east of the Sea of Japan.
Figure 16.3 This map depicts the Mongol conquest of Chinese regimes over the course of the thirteenth century, as well as the movement of Mongol armies westward toward the Middle East and beyond. Notice how the movement of the Mongol conquests varies, owing to both the geographic size of China and the resistance within each region. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Having transferred his capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to what is now Beijing in 1264, Kublai Khan began his conquest of China by adopting the Chinese name Yuan for his empire in 1271. Meaning “origin,” the term Yuan cemented the Mongols’ political legitimacy in China by reinforcing their connection to the Mandate of Heaven, an ancient political philosophy that emphasized the divine source of governmental authority. After fully conquering the Song dynasty in 1279, Kublai Khan became the first ruler over all of China who was not of Chinese origin. In addition to his role as Yuan emperor, he claimed the title of “great khan,” asserting his claims to supremacy over the entire Mongol Empire, even though the Mongols had regional khans responsible for their own territories.

The Yuan dynasty not only incorporated China into the vast Mongol domain, but it also made it a nominal capital of the empire. China had long been a target of Mongol conquest. Its combination of strategic placement at the terminus of the interconnected Eurasian trade routes known as the Silk Roads, its abundant croplands, and a sophisticated bureaucracy provided a ready-made foundation for Mongol governance. The Mongols’ traditional nomadic ways had given them little experience in managing sedentary agriculture, so they began by absorbing many Chinese practices of taxation and administration into their government, which they staffed mainly with foreigners rather than with their Chinese subjects. Although some Chinese officials maintained their positions at the local level, the most lucrative and prestigious jobs were primarily held by Mongols and non-Chinese outsiders. Mongol leaders favored those of Mongolian descent, but they also exhibited tolerance for those they considered outsiders and supported the ethnic and religious diversity of Yuan China, particularly in urban areas. By developing policies favorable to trade, adopting the practice of Buddhism, and expanding the circulation of paper money, Mongol leadership fostered economic expansion and a cosmopolitan spirit that attracted many foreign traders to China (Figure 16.4).

An image of a medallion is shown on a gray background. The medallion is shiny brown colored with a round bottom and a pointy decorative top and loop at the top on a hinge. Across the round bottom ancient lettering is written in columns and the top décor looks like a large monster head with large nostrils, thick biceps, large hands and horns.
Figure 16.4 This late-thirteenth-century iron and silver plaque, known as a paiza, served as one of the world’s first passports. The writing appears in the script used to record the Mongol language in Yuan China and was derived from that used by the Uyghur tribes of central Asia. Paizi such as this were carried by Mongol diplomats or officials to permit them safe passage and access to supplies wherever they traveled in the Mongol realm. (credit: “Safe Conduct Pass (Paiza) with Inscription in Phakpa Script” by Purchase, Bequest of Dorothy Graham Bennett, 1993/Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

An initiative called “The Mongols in China” is presented by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. It includes links to an interactive timeline of the Mongol presence in China. It also contains an introduction to the Mongol influence on Chinese society and narratives and visual depictions of life in China under Mongol rule.

Although Yuan rulers incorporated some elements of Chinese political culture into their governmental organization, such as the Confucian emphasis on filial piety and the veneration of ancestors, they also sought to maintain cultural distance from their Chinese subjects by forbidding them to adopt Mongol dress or learn the Mongol language. They enforced rigid hierarchies based on ethnicity and capitulation to their rule. Their four-tiered social structure placed Mongols at the top, followed by non-Mongol foreigners known as Semu ren. Their ethnic Chinese subjects were relegated to the bottom two categories; those who had submitted to Mongol rule earlier, the Han Chinese in the north, were ranked higher than those in the south who held out longer.

Although the social policy of the Mongols generated a great deal of resentment from their ethnic Chinese subjects, in other respects, the Yuan rulers instituted more benevolent policies. By creating granaries that provided food in times of famine, forgiving the tax burden for villages hit by natural disasters, and reducing the number of crimes that had traditionally resulted in the death penalty, for example, Mongol rulers likely alleviated the hardships faced by many of their subjects. By reducing banditry and making trade safer, particularly along the Silk Roads, they also boosted commerce and improved the lives and fortunes of merchants.

Despite Kublai Khan’s dominance in China, his attempts to hold a unified Mongol Empire together were largely in vain. The realm had already begun to unravel by the time he took the reins of power in China. Not only had a sharp divide occurred when some Mongols converted to Islam, but the empire itself had splintered into four separate sections known as khanates, each governed by a military ruler or governor known as a khan and who linked his ancestry to the sons of Chinggis. Yuan rulers also faced unrest from their Chinese subjects, particularly when a string of weak emperors after Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 resulted in a succession crisis that left Yuan leadership vulnerable to revolt.

Mongol taxation practices and the expropriation of agrarian land had proved financially ruinous for many Chinese peasants and farmers, though taxation benefited merchants and artisans. Despite modest efforts to shore up roads, bolster the postal service, and rebuild the Grand Canal, which provided a means of trade and transportation between northern and southern regions of China, Mongol attempts to bolster infrastructure did not reduce the resentment of their Chinese subjects. Aside from the implementation of some favorable economic and social policies, the notion of foreign rule was an affront to Chinese subjects, who were also offended by Mongols’ dietary and bathing practices. Many Chinese people likely felt affronted by their subjugation to a people they would have viewed as lesser for having such different cultural practices.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, aversion to Mongol rule had led to widespread local rebellions that ultimately hastened the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. Rapid inflation, the devastating impact of the bubonic plague, and intensifying Mongol factionalism all contributed as well. In 1368, the Yuan dynasty officially came to an end when rebel forces triumphed over the Mongol leaders and established the Ming dynasty in its stead.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax