Yuan Dynasty was founded by the famous Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and ruled over China for 97 years from 1271 to 1368. It reunited China after three centuries and was the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China. Emperors of the Yuan dynasty held the title of Great Khan, supreme over the other khanates of the vast Mongolian Empire. Know about the formation, reign and decline of the Yuan dynasty; as well as about its emperors, government, religion and culture, through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 The Yuan Dynasty was the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China

By 1234, after a war with the Chinese Jin Dynasty that lasted for 23 years, the Mongol Empire had annihilated the Jin and completely controlled the whole Northern China. They then commenced a military campaign against the Chinese Song dynasty in southern China. By 1276, most of the Song territory had been captured by Yuan forces and in 1279 the Song Dynasty fell making Yuan the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China. The conquest of Song reunited northern and southern China for the first time in three hundred years.

Mongol-Jin War battle
Depiction of one of the major battles (at Badger Mouth) during the Mongol-Jin War

 

#2 It was founded in 1271 AD by Kublai Khan

In 1271, Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, who was a grandson of Genghis Khan, founded the Yuan (officially the Great Yuan) dynasty in the traditional Chinese style. The name of the dynasty originated from the ancient Chinese divination text I Ching and describes the “origin of the universe” or a “primal force”. The following year Kublai proclaimed Khanbaliq the “Great Capital” or Daidu of the dynasty. It was located at the center of modern Beijing.

Yuan Dynasty Map (1294)
Yuan Dynasty Map (1294)

 

#3 The greatest emperor of Yuan Dynasty was its founder Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan tried to find a balance between preserving Mongol interests in China and maintaining Chinese traditions to satisfy his Chinese subjects. He adopted Chinese political, administrative and cultural models. Kublai Khan established the structure of Yuan government within the first decade of his rule. He promoted economic growth by rebuilding the Grand Canal, repairing public buildings, and extending highways. Kublai Khan set an example for later Yuan rulers and he is considered the greatest emperor of the dynasty.

Statue of Kublai Khan
Statue of Kublai Khan, the founder of Yuan dynasty

 

#4 Its later years were marked by internal struggle and a discontent population

Zhu Yuanzhang
Zhu Yuanzhang – leader of Red Turban Rebellion and founder of Ming Dynasty

After successful reigns of the initial emperors, the later years of Yuan Dynasty were marked by internal struggle for succession, uninterested administration and short reigns of their rulers. The bitterness among the Chinese population began to grow due to ineffective governance and so did the resentment of being ruled by the foreign Mongols. Continuous flooding of the Yellow River and other natural disasters contributed to the growing discontent among the people.

#5 The Red Turban Rebellion led to the downfall of Yuan Dynasty

The White Lotus was a religious and political movement against Yuan Dynasty. Followers of White Lotus were principally responsible for initiating the Red Turban Rebellion in 1351. The rebellion was so called due to the members of its army using red banners and wearing red turbans to distinguish themselves. The Red Turban Rebellion grew into a nationwide uprising and ultimately led to the downfall of the Yuan Dynasty. The most prominent Red Turban leader Zhu Yuanzhang founded the Ming Dynasty and became its first emperor.

 

#6 Reign of Yuan Dynasty is the shortest among major dynasties of China

The last emperor of Yuan Dynasty was Toghon Temür. He tried to suppress the Red Turban rebels in 1354 by sending a large army against them but gradually lost interest in politics and stopped intervening in the affairs of the state. When the Ming forces of Zhu Yuanzhang approached the Yuan Capital Khanbaliq in 1368, Toghon Temür fled to his summer base Shangdu and this is considered the overthrow of the Yuan by the Ming. Reigning for less than a 100 years, from 1271 to 1368, Yuan Dynasty is the shortest-lived major dynasty of China. By 1387 the remaining Yuan forces had surrendered and retreated to Mongolia.

Statue of Toghon Temur
Statue of Toghon Temur, the last emperor of Yuan Dynasty

 

#7 A four-class system was established by the Yuan Dynasty

Yuan Dynasty Buddha statue
Porcelain statue of the Buddha from the Yuan Dynasty

The Mongols divided the Yuan society into four classes. The Mongols occupied the highest rank; followed by Semu, who were non-Mongol foreigners who came from Central and West Asia; followed by Northern Chinese; and the Southern Chinese occupied the lowest rank. This unequal treatment which made it difficult for the Chinese to reach high posts in the government is often cited as one of the main reasons for the downfall of Yuan Dynasty. However, other historians believe that class was not an indication of social status but a degree of privilege allotted according to the date one surrendered to the Mongols.

#8 Yuan Dynasty era was a period of religious diversity in China

The Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions leading to the practice of many religions within the Yuan Dynasty including Buddhism, Islam, Shamanism, Taoism and Christianity. As Kublai Khan favored the Tibetan variant of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism was established as the de facto state religion. Also several measures were adopted to honor Confucianism, a popular philosophical system in China which developed from the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius. Several emperors as well as many among the Mongol elite patronized Confucian scholars and institutions.

#9 Unprecedented cultural exchange took place during Yuan era

Marco Polo
Marco Polo – Who visited China during Yuan dynasty period

Mongolian Empire spanned from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, effectively connecting the Eastern world with the Western world. This led to more-extensive foreign trade and foreign intercourse than at any other time previously in China. Eastern crops such as carrots, turnips, eggplants etc., Middle Eastern cartography, and Western musical instruments were among the numerous things introduced to China. Also Chinese innovations and products like printing techniques and porcelain became popular in Europe and Western Asia.

#10 Famous Italian traveler Marco Polo visited China during their reign

Due to the vast Mongolian Empire, the Silk Road, connecting trade centers across Asia and Europe, came under their sole rule. This led to the first recorded travels by Europeans to China during the Yuan era. The most famous traveler of the period was Italian traveler merchant Marco Polo, who was the first to write a detailed chronicle of his trip to China. His account, known as The Travels of Marco Polo, was published around 1300 and astounded the people of Europe. The book inspired many future explorers including Christopher Columbus.

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