The Mongol Empire
• Main reference;
• Fairbank, John K., et al. East Asia:
Tradition and Transformation. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
• Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 9001800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U.
• Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life
and Times. Berkeley: U. of California
• From the 13th to the 18th centuries, the
Chinese way of life showed great stability.
Three ruling houses held power during 3
dynastic period: Yuan (1271-1368), Ming
(1368-1644), and Ch’ing (1644-1911).
Disorder occurred mainly during the
years of dynastic decline and change.
• Yet, this generally stable political period
has an interesting aspect: the Yuan and
the Ch’ing were non-Han dynasties of
conquest. Nevertheless, the non-Han
conquerors made use of the Chinese
traditional political institutions, which
supported centralized imperial rule
• The Mongol Empire
• In the history of the Northern Wei, the
Liao, and the Chin, we can see some
repetitive features, which become even
clearer in the periods of Mongol (and
• 1. Invaders seized power in North China
usually during periods of disorder;
• 2. The “barbarians” enlisted Chinese
advice and aid, especially from Chinese
of the border region;
• 3. The superior “barbarian” chivalry was
supplied with more and better horses
from the steppe than could be maintained
in an agricultural region;
• 4. Through a policy of tolerance, if not
appeasement, local Chinese leaders were
attracted and used to enlist a larger corps
of Chinese tax collectors and
• 5. The invaders made use of the Chinese
institutions of government and also let the
traditional administration and Chinese
social and cultural life continue;
• 6. But for themselves, the invaders
maintained a homeland of their own
beyond the Great Wall in order to preserve
their own conscious existence as a [nonHan] people and avoid absorption;
• 7. A dual, Sino-”barbarian” administration
was conducted at the local level, mainly by
Han Chinese under the supervision of the
• 8. The invaders also employed other
“barbarians” and foreigners (“colored
eyes people”, such as Marco Polo, etc.) as
officers in their administration;
• 9. The rulers preserved control through
military force – including both a
territorial army, and units of the invading
horde, which garrisoned the Capital and
• Genghis Khan
• When Genghis Khan was born about 1167, the
Mongol tribes were still scattered. He became the
great organizer and unifier.
• (Story of “United we stand, divided we fall”; cf.
story from Aesop’s Fables).
• His personal name was Temujin. He was of
aristocratic birth, but his father was slain when
he was a boy, and he struggled through hard
times to revenge and rose to power – rebelling
against his overlord, and defeated one tribe after
another, Finally, in 1206, at a great meeting of the
Mongol tribes on the Kerulen River, he was
confirmed the title of Genghis Khan (=
• His political structure was organized on the
family principle: families forming clans, clans
forming tribes, and so on.
• One source of strength of this untutored nomad
chieftain lay in his ability to
• learn from others. In building a civil
administration, he used Uighur Turks, who
were also traders in Central Asia; and some of
them were Nestorian Christians, centered
around the oasis of Turfan.
• The heavy bows (and arrows) of the Mongols,
more powerful than the medieval English
longbow, could kill at 600 feet.
• Genghis Khan started wars against the Hsi Hsia
Kingdom in the northwest of China in 1205, and
conquered it in 1227. His campaign against the
Chin Empire in 1211-1215 destroyed their Capital
and also gained the services of Chinese who knew
how to besiege cities and to govern them. The
most famous of these was a descendant of the
Khitan royal house, Yeh-lu Ch’u-ts’ai (1190-1244),
who persuaded his new Mongol masters that it
would be more profitable not to turn North China
into an empty pasture (grassland)!
• Instead he taught the Mongol rulers to
levy taxes on agriculture and foster the
existing mines and craft-industries.
Genghis Khan then conquered the Turkish
Empire of Khoresm (in Russian
Turkestan) in 1219-1221. He acquired not
only wealth, irrigated oasis-cities, centers
of handicraft production, caravan trade,
and Islamic culture, but also the services of
Muslim merchants. Turkish tribes were
also incorporated into the Mongol horde.
• Therefore, Genghis Khan had established
the basis of a far-lung Eurasian Empire by
conquering Central Asia and beyond.
According to John K. Fairbank, he
reportedly said, “Man’s highest joy is in
victory: to conquer one’s enemies, to pursue
them, to deprive them of their possessions,
to make their beloved weep, to ride on their
horses, …” (Fairbank, p. 164)
• Conquest of the Southern Sung
• The Southern Sung repeated its earlier
mistake of removing the buffer (Chin and
Liao) between themselves and their
eventual conquerors. Nevertheless, the
conquest of South China took a few
decades, which shows the strength and
endurance of the Southern Sung –- a
much more difficult conquest for the
Mongols than the empires of West Asia.
• The conquest of the Southern Sung was completed
under Genghis Khan ablest grandson, Khubilai
Khan (1215-1294), who became Great Khan in
1260 and ruled for 34 years. Khubilai built up
Peking (Beijing) as his winter Capital. His forces
moved down the Yangtze River and took the
Southern Sung Capital in Hangchow. Then, they
took Canton, … In 1271, Khubilai had adopted
the Chinese dynastic name of Yuan, meaning “The
First Beginning” or “The Origin”, the first
dynastic name not derived from a place name.
• China under Mongol Rule
• The Mongol conquerors faced the age-old problem
of how to rule in a Han Chinese fashion and still
• The Mongols differed from their subjects in very
striking ways, not only in language and status.
• For clothes, they preferred the leather and furs of
• For food, they liked mare’s milk and cheese, …
• Grown up on the dry desert, the Mongols were not
used to washing.
• They were the only full nomads to achieve a
dynasty of conquest.
• The gap between them and the Han Chinese were
great culturally and then politically.
• In the fact of native hostility, the Mongols in China
employed many foreigners, particularly Muslims
from Central and Western Asia.
• As Marco Polo recorded, “You see the Great Khan
had not succeeded to the dominion of Cathay by
hereditary right, but held it by conquest; and thus,
having no confidence in the natives, he put all
authority into the hands of Tartars, Saracens, or
Christians [colored eyes people], who were attached
to his household and devoted to his service, and
were foreigners in Cathay”. (Fairbank, p. 168)
• Khubilai’s grandson Temur, who succeeded him in
1294, maintained a strong central administration,
but after his death in 1307 the Mongols’ hold on
China rapidly weakened. In the coming 26 years,
7 rulers were on the throne. After 1328, there were
rebellions and civil wars. Meanwhile, paper
money, which had earlier stimulated trade, was
now issued in increasing quantities without
backing, and so paper notes were no longer
accepted for tax payments and seriously
depreciated. There were also floods, famines,
plagues; thus, financial, moral, and political
bankruptcy came hand in hand.
• Marco Polo
• Marco Polo was only one of many who brought
back direct word of “Cathay” (the name derived
from “Khitai”, meaning peaceful and wealthy
• Marco Polo set out in 1271 with his father and
uncle, Venetian merchants on their second trip to
• Marco spent 17 years as an officer in Khubilai’s
court (1275-1292), and returned to Venice in 1295.
• His book on Cathay was a systematic,
scientific treatise, well informed and
objective, the first connected exposition of
the geography, economic life, and
government of China to be told t the
• [*China of the late 13th century was
superior to Europe not only in size but also
in culture and technology.]
• Marco Polo’s influence persisted:
Christopher Columbus had a copy of his
book and made notes in it. … His burnable
“black stones” dug from mountains,
proved to be coal. In the 19th century, his
writings were verified in detail.
• All in all, the significance of the Mongol
Yuan Dynasty in China lies not in her
ruling for the Han Chinese, but rather the
period witnessed the enhancing of the
knowledge and understanding between
East and West; thus, eventually and
probably causing the later “Discovery of
the New World” (by Columbus) and the
“Rise of Great Nations” later.