Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): The Economy

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Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): The Economy


Agricultural Policies. As the first nomadic conquerors to rule over China, the Mongols have been blamed by traditional historians for the damage to and destruction of the agriculture-based Chinese economy during the Yuan period. The more recent, revisionist studies, however, suggest that the Mongol rulers encouraged agriculture. In 1261 Kublai Khan established an Office for the Stimulation of Agriculture and named eight officials to start pro-grams to improve the agricultural economy. Kublai Khan also initiated policies to help recover land in northern China, which had been damaged by warfare for half a century. These relief measures included tax remissions and emergency grain provisions for farmers. To protect agriculture Kublai Khan issued an edict to prohibit the nomads’ herds from roaming in the farmlands. Kublai Khan and his advisers also founded the state-sponsored rural organization called she, which organized fifty households under the direction of village leaders. The primary goal of the she was to stimulate agricultural production and encourage land reclamation. In addition, Kublai Khan established a fixed, regular system of taxation.

Commercial Policies. Merchants prospered during the Yuan dynasty. Traditionally, they were perceived as parasites of society, and previous Chinese dynasties imposed restrictions on the larger merchants. Within the social hierarchy, merchants were ranked at the bottom, below not only the gentry-scholars but also the farmers and artisans. The Mongols, on the contrary, had viewed trade as indispensable for their pastoral economy. After they conquered China, the Mongols continued to value trade, and they elevated the social status of merchants. Domestic commerce soon developed. To promote this trade Kublai Khan enforced the use of paper money throughout China and devised three types of this currency. Kublai Khan also promoted the construction of roads and expanded the postal-station system

to assist in the development of commerce. The postal stations, which had existed as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907) for the transmission and delivery of official mails, now also served as hostels for traveling merchants.

Foreign Trade. Foreign trade flourished under the Yuan dynasty. The overland trade to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Persia was primarily dominated by Muslim merchants. They imported horses, camels, rugs, medicines, and spices. Chinese textiles, chinaware, lacquerware, and other items were exported. The overseas trade also continued to deliver goods to the southeastern port cities of Quanzhou and Fuzhou, where Chinese silk, porcelain, and copper coins were traded for gems, rhinoceros horns, medicines, carpets, and spices. The Yuan rulers required foreign traders to convert their metal coins into Chinese paper currency. This policy helped the court to share in the profits of foreign trade.

Marco Polo. Among the thousands of foreign merchants to visit China, Marco Polo was the most renowned. He was the first westerner to leave a written record about China. Born into a merchant family in Venice, Marco Polo was fascinated by the stories of China told by his father, Niccolo, and uncle Maffeo, who had traveled to China to trade. In 1271 he left home for China with his father and uncle; they arrived in China four years later. He served in Kublai Khan’s court for seventeen years and returned home in 1295. His Description of the World was a vivid account of the geography, economy, and government system of China. He wrote about the use of coal, the salt trade, and the local customs of Yangzhou, where he claimed he had served as governor for three years. He also wrote about his many conversations with Kublai Khan, and he described the Chinese ruler as “neither too small nor too large,” with black eyes and a prominent nose. Although disbelieved by his contemporaries, his account of China was widely read, and it inspired generations of adventurers.


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 & New York: Pergamon, 1979, 1983).

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