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Imperial China, The Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

Mongol dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, grandson of Genghis, Xixia, Jurchens

The Mongols were the first non-Chinese people to conquer all of China. Through the 12th century, the Mongols were one of many nomadic tribes in the area of modern Mongolia. Their rise and rapid creation of a powerful empire began when Mongol ruler Genghis Khan was declared Great Khan in 1206. Genghis embarked on wars of conquest, and within 70 years the Mongols had conquered China and much of central and west Asia, establishing the largest empire the world had ever seen. In the process, the Mongols visited great destruction on settled populations but also created the conditions for unprecedented exchange of ideas and goods across Asia.

China fell to the Mongols in stages. Xixia, the Tangut state, submitted in 1211. The Jin state of the Jurchens fell bit by bit from 1215 to 1234. Song territory in Sichuan fell in 1252, but most of the south held out until the 1270s. By that point, Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis, had succeeded to Mongol leadership in China. Kublai moved the Mongol capital from Karakorum (in modern Mongolia) to a site close to Beijing. By then, Mongol lands stretched from Eastern Europe to the Korea Peninsula and from Siberia to the Indian subcontinent, but the empire was fractured into four separate khanates (states) that often were at war with each other.

The Mongol dynasty in China, called the Yuan, remained a fundamentally foreign dynasty. Non-Chinese, including Persians, Uygurs, and Russians, were assigned to governmental posts, and the Mongols themselves retained their identification as warriors. East-west communications vastly improved. The Mongols supported foreign trade and welcomed foreign religious teachers of many faiths. Missionaries and traders traveled back and forth between China and areas to the west, bringing to China new ideas, foods, and medicines. Best known of the foreigners believed to have reached China during this period was the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, whose account of his travels portrays the wealth and splendor of Chinese cities. Foreigners found new government opportunities in China, but educated Chinese often found political careers under the Yuan impossible or uninviting, and had to turn to other ways of supporting themselves. Some Chinese took to writing songs and librettos for the stage, and as a result, operatic drama experienced a considerable advance during the Yuan dynasty.

Most of the economic advances of the Song slowed or reversed under the Yuan. Chinese peasants had to cope with harsh taxation and confiscation of their land. The 1330s and 1340s were marked by crop failure and famine in North China and by severe flooding of the Huang He. Chinese uprisings occurred in almost every province, and by the 1350s several major rebel leaders had emerged. One of these leaders, Zhu Yuanzhang, was successful in extending his power throughout the Yangtze Valley in the 1360s. In 1368, while Mongol commanders were paralyzed by internal rivalries, Zhu marched north and seized the Yuan capital near Beijing. The Yuan dynasty in China ended, but the Mongols continued to make raids into China from their base in Mongolia.

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