What Was the Yuan Dynasty?

Kublai Khan hunting in China
Kublai Khan and his Empress hunting, Yuan Dynasty China. Getty Images

The Yuan Dynasty was the ethnic-Mongolian dynasty that ruled China from 1279 to 1368 found in 1271 by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. The Yuan Dynasty was preceded by the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1279 and followed by the Ming which lasted from 1368 to 1644.

Yuan China was considered the most important piece of the vast Mongol Empire, which stretched as far west as Poland and Hungary and from Russia in the north to Syria in the south.

The Yuan Chinese Emperors were also the Great Khans of the Mongol Empire, controlling the Mongol homeland and had authority over the khans of the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanate and the Chagatai Khanate.

Khans and Traditions

A total of ten Mongol khans ruled China in the Yuan period, and they created a unique culture that was an amalgam of Mongolian and Chinese customs and statecraft. Unlike other foreign dynasties in China, such as the ethnic-Jurchen Jin from 1115 to 1234 or the later ethnic-Manchu rulers of the Qing from 1644 to 1911, the Yuan did not become very Sinicized during their rule.

Yuan emperors initially did not hire the traditional Confucian scholar-gentry as their advisors, although later emperors began to rely increasingly upon this educated elite and the civil service exam system. The Mongol court continued many of its own traditions: the emperor moved from capital to capital with the seasons in a rather nomadic fashion, hunting was a major pastime for all of the nobility, and women in the Yuan court had much more authority within the family and in matters of state than their Chinese female subjects could have even imagined having.

Initially, Kublai Khan distributed large tracts of land in northern China to his generals and court officials, many of whom sought to drive out the farmers living there and convert the land into pasture. In addition, under Mongol law, anyone who stayed on land that was distributed to a lord became a slave of the new owner, regardless of their social status within their own culture.

However, the emperor soon realized that the land was worth much more with tax-paying farmers working on it, so he confiscated the Mongol lords' holdings back again and encouraged his Chinese subjects to return to their towns and fields.

Economic Problems and Projects

The Yuan emperors needed regular and reliable tax collection in order to fund their projects around China. For example, in 1256, Kublai Khan built a new capital city at Shangdu and eight years later he built a second new capital at Dadu — now called Beijing.

Shangdu became the Mongols' summer capital, located nearer the Mongol homelands, while Dadu served as the primary capital.  The Venetian trader and traveler Marco Polo stayed in Shangdu during his residence in Kublai Khan's court and his stories inspired western legends about the wonderous city of "Xanadu."

The Mongols also rehabilitated the Grand Canal, parts of which dated back to the 5th century B.C. and the majority of which was built during the Sui Dynasty from 581 to 618 A.D. The canal — the longest in the world — had fallen into disrepair due to warfare and silting over the past century.

Fall and Impact

Under the Yuan, the Grand Canal was extended to link Beijing directly with Hangzhou, cutting 700 kilometers from the length of that journey — however, as Mongol rule began to fail in China, the canal once again deteriorated.

Within less than 100 years, the Yuan Dynasty tottered and fell from power under the weight of crushing droughts, floods and widespread famine. The Chinese began to believe that their foreign overlords had lost the Mandate of Heaven as unpredictable weather brought waves of misery to the populace.  

The Red Turban Rebellion of 1351 to 1368 spread throughout the countryside. This, paired with the spread of the bubonic plague and further dampening of Mongol power eventually brought an end to Mongol rule in 1368. In their place, the ethnic-Han Chinese leader of the rebellion, Zhu Yuanzhang, founded a new dynasty called the Ming.