Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): The Rise of the Mongols

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Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): The Rise of the Mongols


Mongol Life. Like the other Inner Asian peoples, the Mongols followed a pattern of seasonal migration. They lived in felt tents, ate mutton, practiced polygamy, and worshiped the hearth. Their basic social and political units were the patriarchal clans, which further formed tribes bound by blood relationships. Conflicts among tribes over women and territory often resulted in warfare, and the losers consequently became subordinates of the victors. Mongol soldiers were known for their mobility and military prowess. The Mongol cavalry consisted of excellent riders. It was reported they could stay on their saddles constantly for about ten days and nights. In battle the Mongol warriors encircled and harried their enemies, and they then used their heavy bows to kill them. They also utilized tactics of psychological warfare, such as terrorizing their opponents. Their military superiority gave them an edge in fighting against other Inner Asian tribes and the Chinese.

Genghis Khan. In 1167 a Mongol boy was born and given the name Temujin. Although of aristocratic origin, Temujin lost his father when he was young, and he subsequently led a hard life. The young Temujin first rebelled against his own lord, then slowly subjugated one tribe after another. Finally, in 1206, the Mongol tribes held a great meeting on the bank of Kerulen River, and Temujin was granted the title of Genghis Khan, meaning “universal ruler.” The power of Genghis Khan was first based on the social organization of Mongols, beginning with the families, then the clans, and then the tribes. Second, the military organization of Genghis Khan proved effective. The Mongol army was organized in units of tens, hundreds, and thousands and was led by aristocratic leaders. In 1227 the Mongol army numbered about 129,000 men, more than 10 percent of the total population. In addition, Mongol military tactics—including encirclement, espionage, and terror—further enhanced their power. In 1215 Genghis destroyed the Jin capital. Before his death in 1227, Genghis eliminated the Xi Xia kingdom, thus establishing the basis of a Eurasian empire.

Kublai Khan. The conquest of the Southern Song (1127-1279) was completed under Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan. He became Great Khan in 1260 and made Beijing his winter capital in 1264. In 1271 he adopted the Chinese dynastic name of Yuan (The First Beginning). In 1279 the Mongol forces finally destroyed the Southern Song court, bringing the entire area of China under Mongol rule. The Mongol leaders, how-ever, continued warfare against other countries. In 1274 and 1281 Kublai Khan’s forces attacked Japan. Both expeditions

failed; the Mongols planned a third assault, but they never carried it out. Mongol forces also organized military campaigns against Vietnam and Burma. In 1281 and 1291 the Mongol fleet attacked Java. These military campaigns expanded Chinese territory and brought local rulers into tribute relationships with China.

Preserving Identity. Kublai Khan was determined to rule all of China. After the conquest of the Southern Song, the Mongols faced the same problem as previous non-Chinese conquerors—how to rule such a vast land and yet not be inundated by Chinese culture. Previous khans had lived among their herds and in their tents. Kublai Khan spent most of his time in Beijing or in the summer capital at Shandu in Inner Mongolia. He was recorded in the histories as Shizu (Grand Ancestor) following Chinese tradition. Kublai Khan was also careful to preserve Mongol identity. He took only Mongol women into his palace and prohibited Mongols from marrying Chinese. Kublai Khan managed to strike a balance during his thirty-four-year rule as leader of the Yuan.


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).