Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): Society Under Mongol Rule

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Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368): Society Under Mongol Rule


Hierarchy of Social Classes. Although the Mongols had established Yuan dynasty rule over all of China, their conquest was not completed without difficulty. Chinese in both northern and southern China organized resistance movements against Mongol control and employed guerilla warfare, or individuals refused to collaborate with their conquerors. Facing hostility from the Chinese, Mongol leaders employed a policy of ethnic discrimination by setting up a strictly enforced hierarchy of social classes, ordered in descending level of importance: from the Mongols, semu ren (Western and Central Asians), ban ren (northern Chinese), to the nan ren (southern Chinese). During the Yuan period many foreigners, especially Muslims from Central and West Asia, were employed by the Mongol court as advisers, civil officials, military officers, financial man-agers, tutors, translators, physicians, astronomers, and skilled craftsmen. These non-Chinese foreigners, or semu ren, were ranked second in society. The Chinese from northern China, since they had capitulated earlier and were therefore more accustomed to Mongol rule, were ranked below the non-Chinese collaborators, but above citizens from southern China, who were the most defiant against their new rulers. This rigid discriminatory policy made the Mongols and non-Chinese foreigners the ruling classes over the Chinese. This practice served at least two purposes. First, it enabled the Mongols and foreigners to extort resources from China. Second, it was meant to hurt psychologically the national pride of the Chinese people. Furthermore, the Mongols utilized the ancient ruling technique of “divide and rule” by differentiating between the northern and southern Chinese. This deliberate racial and ethnic discrimination, combined with traditional Chinese despotism, made the Yuan dynasty the darkest age in imperial Chinese history.

Confucian Scholars.. While the Yuan court practiced racial discrimination and class oppression, it also tried to soften the hostility of the Chinese, especially from Confucian scholars. Kublai Khan issued orders to protect Confucian temples, and he restored Confucianism as the official philosophy. He also exempted Confucian scholars from taxation and encouraged them to serve in his court. Overall, however, Chinese scholars were largely used only as bureaucratic clerks and few rose to prominent positions. Mongol rulers abolished the civil service

examination system and did not revive it until 1315. Confucian scholars also resented the Mongols for their patronage of foreign religions. Nestorian churches and Islamic mosques— along with various Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian temples— were exempted from taxation. The flourishing of various religions was clearly a backlash against the Song school of neo-Confucianism.


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Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 6, Alien Regimes and Border States, 907-1368 (Cambridge 6c 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).