The Yuan Dynasty in Chinese History: 1279-1368

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This is a portrait of Shizu, whom we know best as Kublai Khan. Painting by Anige of Nepal, image courtesy of the National Palace Museum.

This is a portrait of Shizu, whom we know best as Kublai Khan. Painting by Anige of Nepal, image courtesy of the National Palace Museum.

The Yuan dynasty arose as a result of the Mongol invasion from the north of China; Kublai Khan (1215- 1294), the grandson of Genghis Khan, was the founder of the dynasty.

During a period of approximately 90 years, the Mongols controlled China, thus, the Yuan Dynasty is also known as the Mongol Dynasty.

Mongol Culture

The pre-dynastic Mongols were nomadic tribes with no tradition of literacy. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, they became a mighty military power, able to conquer vast territories. The Mongol Empire was the largest empire of its time, directly connecting China with Europe for the first time. This opened the way for trade and commerce both on land and on sea.

Kublai Khan’s Reign in China (1260-1294)

Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1260. He is generally acknowledged and respected (even by Chinese historians) for the unification of the Chinese nation. He established the capital in Beijing, which the Mongols called Dadu – “The Great City.” This Mongol ruler set up a civilian government and cooperated with various Chinese ethnic groups in order to maintain control.

Marco Polo in China: 1275-1292

Kublai Khan hired many foreigners to staff his government bureaucracy, the most famous of whom was Marco Polo. Polo was able to learn the Chinese language and, as the emperor’s emissary, he traveled widely throughout China, India, and Southeast Asia for seventeen years. Among his duties was that of reporting to Kublai Khan on the places he visited. He brought impressive accounts of wealth and culture to the emperor. When he returned to Europe, his memoirs were recorded and widely read, thus spreading information about Chinese culture.

Marco Polo describes Kublai Khan as the ideal ruler. However, he also revealed the less complimentary aspects of Kublai Khan’s personal life – particularly his overindulgence in feasting and his sexual peccadilloes.

Trade Routes Span Great Distances

Mongol rule in China was characterized by extensive trade and commercial relations with foreigners. Roadways were expanded and improved, and maritime trade was promoted. This led to an enormous amount of cultural exchange. Chinese printing techniques, porcelain, textiles, and medical knowledge were introduced to Europe, while European scientific discoveries and architectural innovations were brought to China. Among the many imports from Europe were horses, carpets, and new foods such as the cereal grain sorghum.

Religious Worship in the Yuan Dynasty

Religion was an important element of both Mongol and Chinese society, and, while the Mongol rulers granted economic privileges to their own religion – Buddhism – they were tolerant of other religions as well, granting all clerics freedom from taxation. Kublai Khan reinstated Confucian rituals and ceremonies at his court, and Neo Confucianism became widespread during his reign.

Advancements in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

During the Yuan Dynasty, TCM became more specialized and acupuncture was further elaborated, although there are no records of significant discoveries or inventions. However, while forward movement was limited, sideways movement was enormous. The Mongol Empire stretched across vast distances, and trade over land and sea brought the concepts and practice of TCM to a much wider audience.

Zhu Danxi

Image courtesy of LuHungngoung on internet site

The situation of Hsing-hua in 1362 during Ispah Rebellion in Fukien, Yuan Dynasty. Image by LuHungnguong.

The life span of the most famous Yuan Dynasty physician, Zhu Danxi (also known as Zhu Zhenheng -1280-1358) overlapped almost completely with the rule of the Mongols in China.

Zhu Danxi established his own school of medicine, based on traditional beliefs and practices in TCM. In line with Chinese philosophy, Zhu Danxi believed that chronic disease was the result of overindulgence – whether it be in eating, drinking or the pursuit of pleasure. (Perhaps his view was based on his treatment of the ruling classes!) Zhu Danxi contributed to the advancement of acupuncture methods.

The End of Mongol Rule in China

The Yuan Dynasty was the shortest lived major dynasty in China’s history. A combination of events brought about its downfall. First, there were power struggles and corruption within the ruling family. In addition, the Chinese people resented the heavy tax burden imposed upon them by the Mongols. These factors, coupled with a series of natural disasters that resulted in widespread famine, led to peasant uprisings. The regime was finally overthrown in 1368.

© Copyright 2014 Leslie Cohen, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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