''Mongol conquest of China'

The Mongol conquest of China came in a series of stages. The Western Xia kingdom in the north-west was attacked between 1205 and 1209 and the Jin Empire of North China was first overrun between 1211 and 1215. The Mongols then turned westwards and seized the Western Liao Empire, the state founded by the remnants of the Qidan. After a pause the Mongol attack was resumed, the Jin Empire was destroyed in 1234, the remains of the Nanzhao kingdom in the south-west fell in 1253. Korea was conquered by 1258. The Yuan dynasty was established in 1272 and the Southern Song capitulated in 1279.

'Genghis Khan and the conquest of North China'

In the twelfth century the people who are known historically as the Mongols lived in separate tribes on the steppes of central Asia. Their economy was based on herding cattle, hunting and the fact that they were expert horsemen. They were frequently in conflict with their neighbors, the Tartars and this was encouraged by the Jin, who wished to ensure that there was dissension on the steppes as a means of keeping themselves free of oppression.

The early history of Temujin, later to be known as Genghis Khan, was recorded in the Secret History of the Mongols. He was born in about 1167 and his father, who fought against the Tartars was said to have been poisoned when Temujin was still a child. This led to the young man seeking to ally the various Mongol tribes against the Tartars and in so doing he became their overall leader. In around 1187 he declared himself to be the khan of the Mongols. Ten years later with the assistance of the Jin, he was able to wreak revenge upon the Tartars for the death of his father. Another ten years of conflict passed until a meeting of the tribes in 1206 proclaimed Genghis Khan universal ruler of the peoples of the steppes. He proceeded to carry out reforms of the religion, laws and politics of the newly united people. Most importantly, he set about organizing the military resources. He declared that he was the instrument of heaven and all that stood against him did so in defiance of heaven and it was on this that his drive for universal rule was based. He handed out titles, created responsibilities for his supporters and had his decrees recorded in written form so that they might serve as precedents. This was something which had not been done in Mongolian society before. So far as the military reforms were concerned, he had ninety-five tribal units each of a thousand men divided into units of tens and hundreds. In total he had over a hundred thousand men under his command, fighting under the leadership of their tribal chieftains. This was an army of men who were capable of great feats of endurance and a fighting machine that was to create the largest land empire the world has ever seen.

Following campaigns which extended from the Black Sea to Korea attacks were then made on northern China between 1211 and 1215. His attention was then drawn to the west where he conquered the Western Liao Empire before he returned his attacks on China. In 1226 he attacked and destroyed the Western Xia but he died the following year. He was succeeded by his third son Ogodei who continued to expand the territories under Mongol control. In 1230 he recommenced attacks on northern China and in 1233 he captured Kaifeng, destroying the Jin dynasty in the following year. The Mongols had continued their nomadic way of life and had turned vast tracks of land that they had captured into pastures. They even considered exterminating large populations of peoples they had overrun in order to extend this practice. However, Yeluchucai recommended the establishment of a strong central government and that an amnesty should be extended to those Chinese who had offended against the Mongols. Yeluchucais suggestions, which had included a tax system and a means for local administration, proved successful and he was then empowered to extend his use of Chinese administrative methods. He brought Chinese civil servants into government employ and encouraged the study of the Chinese classics. He also attempted to reintroduce the examination system for the appointment of civil servants. It was when Ogodei granted a Muslim businessman the privilege of farming taxes of North China along with the appointment of other Muslims to influential positions that the strategy for ruling China began to fall into decay. When Ogodei died in 1241 and Yeluchucai died a year later, the system of administration was seriously undermined.

'The Conquest of the Southern Song'

In 1251 Mongke became Khan and the invasion of China resumed. His brother Kublai embarked upon a campaign to subdue the Southern Zhou and in 1254 Mongke invaded Sichuan in 1258, a year prior to his death. A dispute over the succession delayed any further assault on the Southern Song for a further twenty years. The terrain made the traditional use of cavalry by the Mongols very difficult as they had to capture walled cities and suffer the threat of Song naval power. A significant battle led to the fall of Xiangyang following a siege which lasted from 1268 to 1273. In 1276 Hangzhou was occupied and the Song formally surrendered. However, some of the Song militants continued to resist until 1279. They retreated to Guangzhou and were forced to put to sea. The last devoted servant of the dynasty, Lu Xiufu, leapt into the sea with the boy emperor in his arms and they were both drowned.

During the 13th Century a great leader, Temujin, was to emerge from among the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian steppes. These tribesmen occupied the area between the northern Daxingan Mountains and the eastern bank of the Argun River. As skilled horsemen, they were to become a formidable fighting force once the tribes had united under Temujins leadership. In 1206 Temujin was formally elected as ruler over Greater Mongolia, encompassing the Mongolian Plateau and the Gobi Desert, and he adopted the name and title of Genghis Khan. The newly elected Khan set about extending his empire and set his sights on China. In 1227 he defeated the Western Xia and in 1234 he defeated the Jin. This was to open the way to unify the whole of China for the first time under a non-Chinese regime, a people who eventually were to become a ethnic group.

Following Genghis' death, his grandson succeeded him and as Kublai Khan, the new leader established the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, with his capital city at Dadu (present day Beijing). Kublai, who was known as Emperor Shizu continued to annex Chinese territory and in 1279 the Yuan forces captured Hangzhou, the capital city of the Southern Song (1127 -1279). The Song Emperor Gong, together with his mother the Empress Xie was taken into captivity. Three years later in 1279, the Yuan engaged in a maritime war in Yashan and crushed the "New Song" which had been formed by exiled officials and survivors from the Southern Song. With their dynasty now firmly established in the Chinese empire, the Yuan found themselves rulers of a complex group of peoples who inhabited the largest land based empire ever to exist, stretching from what is now Korea and western Russia in the north and from Burma to Iraq in the south. But they were rulers with no experience of administration. Consequently, they adopted Chinese political and cultural models.

Ruling from their capital city Dadu, the Mongol Khans increasingly adopted the role and style of Chinese emperors. However, they failed to unite the people and caused further dissension by forming them into clearly defined ethnic groups. The four classes of the Yuan Dynasty created were firstly, the Mongols themselves, next came their allies and non-Chinese people from Inner- Asia, a class to be called the Semu. The third class was made up of the people of Northern China and they were called the Han. Lastly, came the people of Southern China, who were referred to as the Nan. The Mongols in the first group enjoyed the greatest privileges under the regime, while the fourth group, the Nan were to have the least. The same applied in so far as taxation and the penal code were concerned as this had a very divisive effect on the population as a whole. Mixed marriages were forbidden and it was impossible to gain promotion from one group to another.

During the 1340s and 1350s, internal political cohesion disintegrated due to rivalry between various factions at court, rampant corruption and a succession of natural calamities. These elements all fuelled the fires of rebellion. Mutinying workers, pirates, smugglers and rebel peasants ultimately were victorious in their fight with Mongol troops and the Yuan Dynasty was overthrown. The last Yuan Emperor together with his court fled from the country while many of the Mongols were content to remain and become integrated with the Chinese population. The man who led the final onslaught against the Yuan was Zhu Yuanzhang and he was to become the first Ming (1368 - 1644) Emperor. The Mongols were so weakened that it was not until the 15th Century that they gained sufficient strength under a leader known as Dayan Qaghan to attack the Empires frontiers once again. The Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1911) accepted the final submission of the Mongol rulers and thus Mongolia became a part of China.

'Social Economy'

Following their invasion, the Mongols confiscated a vast amount of arable land and turned it over to pasture. State owned land was often granted to Mongol aristocrats and to Buddhist monasteries. These actions coupled with harsh taxes impoverished the peasant farmers, many of whom migrated to the South. Due to their ignorance of the need to control flooding, the Mongols neglected river defences and the Yellow River shifted its course with a resultant large loss of life. The incorporation of China into the Mongol empire did little to help their economy as so much trade was under foreign control. As trading profits were taken out of China, the metal currency was depleted and this led to the use of paper money and inflation. Large scale corruption existed and this together with the Mongol desire for splendor such as demonstrated by their building of Dadu caused impoverishment.

Under Kublai, things were improved. He brought together groups of fifty households to develop land for agriculture, to improve flood defences and irrigation. This encouraged silk production. He also promoted the interests of artisans and merchants. He supported Ortogh, an association of mainly Muslim traders, who managed the trade along the Silk Road. He made wider use of paper currency but ensured its value was backed by adequate supplies of silver. This was an encouragement to commerce and with the construction of roads, improved canals and a postal system economic activity was enhanced.

Towards the end of his reign, economic problems started to escalate. His foreign expeditions and massive public works programs such as the extension of the Great Canal imposed a heavy burden on the countrys exchequer. Kublai employed a series of semu finance ministers who were very unpopular as a result of their taxation methods. His successors continued to suffer from financial problems which they endeavored to control by raising revenue from monopolies, currency manipulation and the profits of a growing maritime trade. Ayurbarwada instituted a land census with a view to ensuring all holdings were suitably taxed. This led to strong opposition and so land owners in the South were left to prosper. In the North and to a lesser extent in the South, the Mongols rewarded their followers with grants of land together with rights over the tenants upon it which meant households were placed in bondage. The government sought to control the exploitation of such households but continued internal migration indicates that this was not altogether a success. Although the Mongols did encourage agriculture, the number of peasant uprisings towards the end of their reign shows that rural life was harsh during the Yuan period. In the fourteenth century, China suffered thirty five severe winters and in 1332 abnormal rainfall, with consequent flooding which was the cause of much loss of life.

'Religion and Culture'

Although they practiced a form of shamanism, the Mongols did not impose this on their subject races. During the Yuan period there was religious freedom albeit with some degree of favor to one group at the expense of another. Their reliance on divination in deciding upon a course of action led to the use of Daoist adepts. The Taoist leader, Changchun, who had a famous meeting with Genghis Khan in 1219, gained privileges for his followers over Buddhists. Ogodei issued an edict that all Daoist and Buddhist monks over the age of fifty should pass an examination on the scriptures of their chosen religion. This was done in an effort to restrict the very considerable growth in their numbers. A series of public debates were held between 1255 and 1258 to settle difference between Taoists and Buddhist. Predominant among these debates was the matter of claims to monastic properties and Kublai found in favor of the Buddhists much to the annoyance of the Taoists.

The Tibetan lama, Phags-pa, played a leading role in these debates and as his form of Buddhism had more appeal to the Mongols, with its colourful pageantry and emphasis on magic, he was appointed State Preceptor in 1260. Tibetan Buddhism took a firm hold in China and the Mongol Emperors were to receive Buddhist legitimation.

The Mongol conquerors treated Confucianism with contempt at the outset but their attitude was to change. They recognized the value of Confucian officials in government. The Neo-Confucianism which had spread in the South became accepted when the country was unified. Confucian scholars were faced with a problem. Should they stay in office and support the new regime or should they retire and merely follow scholarly activities? Xu-Heng (1209-81), Kublais chancellor at the Imperial College chose to play an active role. He promoted the Neo-Confucian text known as the Xiaoxue, the Elementary Learning which concerned the teaching of the young. By contrast Liu-Lin (1249-83), a distinguished scholar, refused to take office under Mongol rule. He alleged ill health, which may have been true as he died two years later. Xu-Heng is said to have said that unless he was prepared to serve the new dynasty, the Confucian way could not prevail. Liu Yins response was that the Confucian way could not be respected if scholars accepted Mongol masters. His response is seen as a protest against the Mongol empire and has been described as an example of Confucian eremitism, a withdrawal of the scholar from the world of affairs to that of self-realization. Drama became firmly established and some 700 plays, which included singing and dancing, were written under the Yuan. Some 150 of these have survived and form what has become to be known as the Yuan northern drama, as many were written for performance in Beijing. The modern Beijing opera is descended from them and many of the plays have been translated into western languages, such is their popularity. On the whole, the Yuan period saw a proliferation of literary activity in both drama and in fiction; a common element was that both were written in the vernacular which gave them access to a wider audience and readership.

'Contact with the outside world'

The Yuan period was one in which there was freedom of travel both to and from the empire. Such travel encompassed both western Asia and Europe. The period also was one in which foreigners were encouraged to settle in China, notably western Asians. A heavy reliance by the Mongolian rulers upon foreign advisers diverted some of the animosity of the Chinese away from them to the in-comers.

Muslims in China were grouped as semu and treated as a separate class with special privileges. Many were merchants and as such were vital to the government as a source of revenue. Others had specialist skills in the scientific field being astronomers, architects and adept in the development of medicine. Armaments were also important to the military ambitions of the Mongols and they encouraged foreign experts in their production. It was the financial advisors who incurred the greatest wrath of the Chinese. Kublai employed one known as Ahmad as a finance minister. It was he who was to be the first of three such villainous men who were guilty of nepotism, corruption and the imposition of oppressive taxation. The trade association financed the caravans that carried silks along the Silk Road to the West. This led to the members being granted tax-farming rights, much to the chagrin of the Chinese population. Until the end of the Yuan dynasty Muslims continued to hold important positions at court despite the fact that a greater reliance came to be placed on Chinese officials. It was during this dynasty that the first Europeans travelled to the empire. It is thought there were three reasons for these visits. The first was trade, the second was political as Christian Europe sought allies against the rise of Islam. Thirdly there was proselytism. The first European to reach the Mongolian court at Karakorum was a Franciscan monk, John of Plano Carpini. He had been sent by Pope Innocent IV on a diplomatic mission in 1246. He was followed by William of Rubruck in 1253. It was at this point that the Venetian Polo family was to make its journeys to the empire. In 1262 Maffeo and Nicole Polo were received by Kublai. Nicole was to return with his son Marco who remained in the east for some twenty years. There is some doubt cast upon whether or not Marco Polo actually travelled into China as his reports neglected to mention many important facts of Chinese life.

'Decline and Fall'

Despite the act that the Mongolian emperors sought to emulate much of the Chinese style of rule they continued to be regarded by the Chinese as unwelcome invaders and this may well have been the cause of their eventual failure as rulers. There is evidence of the declining ability of the Mongolian rulers to exercise control. The court was beset by intrigue which undermined the administration. Toghon Temur, the last Yuan ruler relied heavily on his councilors. When he dismissed the Mongolian Toghto his action precipitated the disintegration of the government.

The loss of military advantage brought about by the deterioration of the military system through a lack of funding and equipment plus the fact that the military leaders had to turn to agriculture for their survival contributed to the fall of the Yuan. The garrison system set up to control local disturbances fell into disarray. Rebellion became increasingly frequent from the 1330s. The most important of these was to become known as the Red Turban Rebellion. Based upon a religious sect, these rebels were to rise up in several places in the Huaihe River region and elsewhere. The massive recruitment of labor to re-route the Yellow River was the cause of unrest and while some uprisings were led by religious fervor others were class led as the efforts were directed against landlords and officials. The Yuan allowed these people to raise peasant armies to quell rebellion but a second round of revolt that proved more successful was led by Zhu Yuanzhang, who in 1368 was to become the first Ming emperor. In many respects the Mongolian occupation of China is seen as unproductive but there were important developments in literature and drama. The other important feature concerns the military establishment. Prior to the Yuan period the concept of conscription was tantamount. This could only work efficiently under a strong and effective central government. The Tang abandoned this idea and relied upon mercenaries, a practice followed also by the Song. The Yuan instituted a system of hereditary military families and this was to be continued by the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing (1644 - 1911). The practice played a part in ensuring dynastic strength but it also encouraged despotism. Finally, the legal system left a legacy. One notable aspect was the imposition of a responsibility upon a wrong doer to provide financial support for his victim in addition to any penalty.

'Mongol Class System'

Notoriously, the Mongols imposed a four class system on China that divided the population into four separate ethnic groups. These had a descending order of privilege and were to become a cause of much contention. The Mongols placed themselves first, then Western and Central Asians who were known as semu ren. Next were the Han ren, who were the people of Northern China and conquered in 1234. These included Chinese and Qidan, Jin and others. The final group and of the lowest order were the nan ren, the people who had been ruled by the Southern Song and brought into the new Mongol Empire in 1279. The class distinctions were not too rigidly enforced but they did have implications when it came to privileges, appointments and taxation.

In the past, the Chinese had allowed ethnic communities to punish offenders according to their own laws. In the Yuan period Mongols and semu ren were tried according to Mongolian or Central Asian laws, while the Chinese were tried according to Chinese law. This resulted in a diverse system of punishments. Special courts were established to deal with cases involving more than one ethnic group. While the Mongols continued to receive certain advantages, in marital disputes the law was applied according to the husbands group. However, if the wife happened to be a Mongol, in that case her ethnicity took preference.So far as the tax system was concerned, then the Mongols did exploit the Chinese. Under Ogodei harsh taxes were replaced by a more orderly system proposed by Yeluchucai. But his reforms were to be replaced by tax-farming by Muslim entrepreneurs. Earlier disruptions in the North through conflict and natural disasters led to an apparently excessive tax burden upon those living there. In the South, although the Mongols enjoyed concessions, the Chinese population fared somewhat better than their Northern compatriots and landowners may well have benefited from the Yuan economic policies.


The traditional view of Chinese historians was that the Mongol conquest was a disaster. They devised a system of economic exploitation and practiced racial discrimination which so antagonized the Chinese people that it was inevitable that they should eventually be driven from the country. It is also held that the Mongol occupation proved to be a setback to the development of Chinese society due to the ending of the progress achieved during the Song period. This led to the fact that the succeeding Ming dynasty became an introverted and non competitive state. It has also been suggested that the Mongol rule introduced a level of brutality into government that had not previously existed. This in turn was to affect the subsequent behavior of Ming emperors, the first of whom ordered the public flogging of ministers who offended him.An important aspect of the Yuan period was that it brought about the reunification of the country and that despite the adverse criticism by the Ming rulers, the Mongols may have been more humane than the Song (960 - 1279) and that the Han (206 BC - 220 AD) people had actually flourished during their reign.