The Yuan-dynasty: Mongolian foreign rule

The Yuan-dynasty: Mongolian foreign rule

The emperors

During the Song dynasty the Mongols of the north had already strengthened their power, and developed more and more into a serious threat for the Song. Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongols, led several campaigns until he finally captured Lin’an, capital of the southern Song, in 1279. Resulting from that, the country became reunited for the first time since more than 300 years, so that a unified development of the Chinese nation-state could follow.

Kublai Khan is therefore considered to be the founder of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).

Right after he assumed his new position, Kublai Khan dismissed all Chinese officials and replaced them with Mongolian officials. Although he was now emperor of China, he never made a move to learn the Chinese language.
It is said, that at court of emperor Shizu, as Kublai Khan called himself by then, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo has also been welcomed as guest. After his return to Italy, he claimed to have been employed there to serve as official, what however today is generally doubted by many historians.
Although both of its attempts to conquer Japan (in 1274 and 1281) had failed, the empire of the Yuan did nevertheless achieve its largest expansion under Kublai Khan.

After Kublai Khans death in 1294, Timur Khan took over to reign for the next 13 years. He had the reputation to strive for ensuring peace and to be a fair sovereign, as well as to support Confucianism and above all to take Chinese interests in consideration with primary importance. Thus around 1303 he dismissed more than 18000 officials, because they were said to have plundered the people.

Timur Khan was succeeded by emperors who ruled during relatively brief periods, but who all did pursue politics that were rather hostile to the Chinese. The question of who is to succeed the throne has ever been debated problematically. Thus, in 1328 Arigaba, the son of Yesun Timur Khan, who was then still a minor, became emperor. However, in the succeeding succession war, Toq-Temür could declare himself the winner and began immediately to reign over the country.

The last Mongolian emperor was Toghan Timur, who was only 13 when he accepted the throne. He left all matters concerning the government to his chancellors to decide, and rather devoted himself to hunting.

Birth name

Mongolian name

Name as Chinese emperor

Reign period in China

Borjigin Kublai

Kublai Khan



Borjigin Temür

Timur Khan



Borjigin Qayshan

Külüq Khan



Borjigin Ayurparibhadra

Buyantu Khan



Borjigin Suddhipala




Borjigin Yesün-Temür

Yesun Timur Khan



Borjigin Arigaba


None existent


Borjigin Toqa Timur

Jijaghatu Toq-Temür


1328-1329 und 1329-1332

Borjigin Qoshila

Qutugku Khan



Borjigin Irinchibal




Borjigin Toghan Timur

Ukhaatu Khan



Political and economical development

The Mongolian rulers did not have any experiences in the administration of such a complex state as China has been at that time. Due to this inexperience, the Mongols adopted overtly the Chinese style of ruling and even worked with its political institutions. The new capital was Khanbalik, nowadays called Beijing. From there, the Mongolian emperor ruled over his empire. While doing this, he began to adopt the way of life of Chinese emperors more and more. However, during the whole time of the Yuang dynasty, the cultural differences came to surface recognizably again and again. Mongols and Chinese spoke in different languages; they dressed differently, and cultivated different customs and traditions. For that reason, it is not surprising, that the Chinese were never accepted for dealing with administrative tasks of the empire. Mongols, Muslims and even Europeans were preferred instead of them

Class system in the new empire

The Mongols introduced a four-level class system. The highest and simultaneously ruling class on top of the system was taken in by the Mongols. Chinese from west- and central Asia (semu ren) belonged to the second class.  They were followed one step down by the Chinese from the north (han ren) of the empire. The class on the lowest level was occupied by subjects of the conquered Song dynasty (nan ren).

The class differences were strictly implemented and were of great importance for the granting of privileges and the contribution of taxes. So, especially the Chinese in the north of the empire were liable to pay high taxes, since, caused by natural disasters, there were large agricultural damages that had to be compensated for with taxes. The Chinese living in the south were doing a little better, so that some of them could profit from the Mongolian agricultural politics.


Jurisdiction in the multiracial state has been a problematic matter too. As long as the Chinese reign lasted forth, the single ethnic groups were allowed to apply their own law. A similar system was applied under the foreign rule exerted by the Mongolians: The Mongols and semu ren had to obey the jurisdiction valid in Mongolia and central Asia. Accordingly, the Chinese administration of justice acted upon Chinese law. However, the differences in jurisdiction resulting from this were of particular importance for cases, in which different ethnic groups were involved. In such cases, the class system had to be applied with prior importance, because Mongols had advantages in relation to other ethnic groups.


The Chinese society strongly depended upon agriculture. The Mongols confiscated extensively large parts of land from the farmers and either gave it to monasteries or used it for provision of the military. In addition, the farmers were obliged to pay high taxes and to do savage work for them. Several crop failures and floods caused by the Huanghe River contributed likewise to increasing impoverishment of the farmers.


Trade with Europe and West Asia via the Silk Road was substantially revived during the reign of the Yuan dynasty. The trade organizations financed caravans that transported silk to Europe and that in turn imported medicine, fragrance and precious stones to China.

Foreign tradesman enjoyed many privileges in China. They could travel without restrictions and were not obliged to pay taxes.

In addition the Yuan tried to speed up the trade by building both new streets and canals as well as producing more silk with help of improved irrigation systems. The measures undertaken for urban development were financed with the taxes they got from the farmers.

Trade profits were at large extent exported outside from the country, thus leading finally to empty treasuries. Paper money was introduced in order to react against the succeeding inflation. 

The people’s resistance and expulsion of the Mongols

The Mongols were constantly seen as being rather unwelcome intruders by the Chinese. Therefore, there were repeatedly rebellions against the Mongols since they took reign.

The first rebellion took already place in 1278. During the revolt, several hundreds of thousands of men fought over six years against the Yuan. There were several rebellions during the following years, for example the rebellion of the Red Turbans. The impetus was a flood caused by the Huanghe River in 1343. In order to prevent the Huanghe River from flooding again, more than 150000 men had been recruited for building dykes. Thereupon, raged farmers began to organize themselves, led by Liu Futong.

The rebels wore red strips around their heads, which helped the movement to get its name. Liu Futong lost his life during the fights in 1363 and the rebellion was finally suppressed. 

However, the movement of the Red Turbans continued to live further on and Zhu Yuanzhuang, a rebellious farmer, would soon join the Red Turbans. Under his direction they finally succeeded in driving the Mongols back into the north. In 1368 Yhu Yuanzhuang captured the Mongolian capital Dadu, thereby officially sealing the end of the Yuan dynasty.

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