Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): China and the Inner Asian Peoples

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Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): China and the Inner Asian Peoples


Life on the Steppe. Unlike the Chinese Han (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) people, who lived in a settled, agrarian economy, the lives of the Inner Asian peoples of the steppe evolved around a pastoral economy. The nomadic tribal peoples depended on

sheep and horses for their livelihood. These people ate mutton and drank horse milk; were clothed in sheepskins and slept in felt tents; and used dried animal dung for fuel. They rode horses when tending their herds, moving the animals from pasture to pasture, and fighting their enemies. They only needed to con-tact agricultural people when they traded for salt, tea, grain, tex-tiles, and metals. They migrated on a seasonal basis, herding in the open plains in summer and in sheltered mountain valleys in winter. The migrant nature of life made it hard for these nomads to accumulate wealth, and therefore they always needed trade and territorial expansion. When the Chinese government was strong and effective, it confronted these “barbarians” and chased them out of the frontier areas, whereas, when the dynasty was weak, the horse-riding nomads invaded, looted the agricultural Chinese, and took their lands as pastures.

Liao Dynasty. The Khitan (Qidan) tribes, a group of Mongols from the steppe, established the Liao dynasty (947-1125) in northern China. The territory of the Liao included the agri-cultural areas in northern China and southern Manchuria, grasslands in western Manchuria and Mongolia, and the forested valleys of eastern and northern Manchuria. The Khitan people lived a semiagricultural life and operated a seminomadic economy. They grew crops, raised pigs, and kept horses and camels. By 907 the Khitan formed a tribal confederation, and the chieftain declared himself an emperor. By 947 the Khitan empire expanded to include sixteen prefectures in northern China, and it adopted the Chinese dynastic title of the Liao dynasty. The Khitan Liao incorporated a Chinese-style government and examination system.

Xi Xia Kingdom. While the Liao dynasty existed in northern China, the Tanguts, a Tibetan people, established a kingdom, called Xi Xia (1038-1227), in northwestern China (approximately in present Gansu province). The Tanguts had a semi-oasis economy. They irrigated arid lands to grow their crops, herded sheep, and traded with the Chinese and Central Asian peoples. In 1038 the Tangut leader declared himself the emperor of Xi Xia. Like the Liao dynasty, the Xi Xia kingdom adopted the Chinese government structure and educational system but made Buddhism its state religion.

Jin Dynasty. The Jurchen (Nuzhen) tribes, a Tungusic-speaking people from northern Manchuria, were Khitan vassals. In 1115 a capable Jurchen leader unified the tribes and declared himself emperor. The Jurchens named their dynasty the Jin (Golden, 1122-1234) after a river in Manchuria. The Jin invaded the Song lands, captured their capital in 1126, and pushed the royal court to the south of the Hui River, thus occupying the entire northern part of China. Like the Khitans and Tanguts, the Jurchen tribes also experienced a significant level of sinification. They established their main capital in Yanjing, the site of modern Beijing, and modeled their bureaucratic state after China. The Jurchen rulers studied Confucian classics and patronized Chinese art. Interracial marriages between the Chinese and Jurchens were allowed by the government. With the settled lifestyle, the Jurchen chariot men gradually became tenant farmers. In 1215, pushed by the Mongols, the Jin moved their capital from Yanjing to Kaifeng in Henan Province. In 1234 the Mongols finally eliminated the Jin dynasty.


John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 6, Alien Regimes and Border States, 907-1368 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

John D. Langlois Jr., ed., China under Mongol Rule (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Witold Rodzinski, A History of China, 2 volumes (Oxford 6c New York:

Pergamon, 1979, 1983).

Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions”