III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > E. East Asia, to 1527 > 2. China, 960–1521 > c. The Mongol Period > 1260
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
After having unilaterally moved the capital to Shangdu (Coleridge's Xanadu) during the squabbling over the succession, Khubilai (r. 1260–94) was elected Great Khan.  1
The YUAN DYNASTY was effectively founded for Mongol rule in China when Khubilai became Great Khan. The dynastic name was adopted in 1271.  2
Khubilai transferred the winter capital to Yanjing, where he constructed Khanbalig, modern Beijing. He had an astronomical observatory (1279) built on the city wall, wherein were installed bronze instruments cast by Guo Shoujing (1231–1316).  3
After four and a half years of desperate and brilliant fighting, the last two strongholds of the Song against the Mongols, Xiangyang and Fancheng—both walled cities in modern Hubei Province—fell. Explosives were used by both sides as weaponry in the fighting, perhaps for the first time in history. Hangzhou was captured in 1276, Guangzhou the following year. The Song fleet carrying the last pretender to the throne was destroyed in 1279.  4
1274, 1281
Disastrous Mongol attacks on Japan both ended in defeat for Khubilai. Naval forces set off from Korea and the lower Yangzi Delta—numbering all told in excess of 150,000 men and 4500 vessels. They were repulsed by well-prepared Japanese defenders and by the ill effects of a typhoon (the “divine wind,” or kamikaze, of popular Japanese belief), which destroyed their ships.  5
An army sent by sea from South China against Champa seized the capital but was forced to withdraw because of local conditions. There were further assaults on Southeast Asia: An-nam and Champa (1285, 1287–88), Burma (1287), and Java (1292–93).  6
Despite misgivings, the civil service examinations were reinstated, but with built-in safeguards discriminating in favor of Mongols and their non-Han supporters and against the Han Chinese.  7
The Mongol military system was based on a stadial structure of units—in garrisons spread around the country—that was much more centralized than the tribal divisions of the Khitans and Jurchens. The elite imperial bodyguard, or kesig, was staffed by Mongols of noble blood and served at the capital.  8
Unlike any Chinese experience before or since, the Yuan dynasty was but one part of a much larger Mongol Empire. In China, the empire adopted many of the trappings of Chinese state and society. Khubilai's court was patterned after those of his Chinese predecessors, and he and his successors adopted Chinese-style reign titles. The Yuan government followed the Jurchens' example of consolidating the central government's bureaus into one big department. It retained the censorate but used primarily Mongols, and it built up a powerful, independent military-affairs bureau. There was a four-tiered system for bureaucratic preference: Mongols came first, followed by non-Chinese ethnicities, northern Chinese, and finally southern Chinese. The same quotas applied to examination candidates, and since some 75 percent of the population was southern Chinese, the Chinese were greatly disfavored.  9
The population of China was hit hard by the Mongol invasions and wars. The depopulation of the north and migrations to the south were so great that during the Yuan, at least 75 percent of the Chinese population lived in the south.  10
Agriculture remained central to the national economy during the Yuan. The introduction of sorghum helped revitalize and repopulate northern China. The Mongols seized land for their own use—such as in support of their armed forces—and often forced Chinese peasants into servitude on that land. Imperial inspectors annually examined crops and the food supply with a view to purchasing when stocks were ample, for storage against famine. The Grand Canal was rebuilt (1289–92) from the former Song capital at Hangzhou, a bustling metropolis in Yuan times, to the Huai River, and it was extended farther north to the outskirts of Beijing. Imperial roads were improved, and postal relays of 200,000 horses were established. Charitable relief was organized (1260) for scholars, orphans, and the sick, for whom hospitals were provided (1271).  11
Paper money, first used in the Tang and carried on in Song and Jin times, was continued under the Mongols. When the issuance of paper currency was suggested to Ögödei (1236), Yelü Chucai secured limitation to a value of 100,000 ounces of silver. Khubilai's Muslim financier kept annual issues at an average of 511,400 ounces (1260–69). His successor increased distributions (1276–82) to 10 million ounces each year. After the murder of that financier, inflation ensued until a Uighur replacement reduced the rate of printing to 5 million ounces (1290–91). All printing was discontinued in 1311, as the dynasty's fortunes were on the wane.  12
In thought and religion, the Mongols were on the whole extremely tolerant, and a wide host of religious groups built houses of worship in Yuan-era cities. Chinggis was particularly drawn to the Daoist monk Changchun (1148–1227). Other Great Khans favored Nestorian Christianity (See 484–488). The patriarch of Baghdad created an archbishopric of Beijing (1275), and churches were built elsewhere in Chinese cities. Mar Yabalaha, a pilgrim who traveled from Beijing to Jerusalem, was elected patriarch (1281), and he sent his companion Rabban Sauna to Rome and France. He negotiated with Pope Nicholas IV an entente between the Nestorian and Roman churches. John of Montecorvino (1246?–1328) was the first of several Roman missionaries to China. He is said to have baptized 5,000 converts and was named by the pope archbishop of Beijing (1307). Khubilai, for his part, favored Tibetan Lamaist Buddhism; 'Phags-pa (1238–80), the man who devised a script for the Mongolian language, was appointed Khubilai's imperial mentor and governor of Tibet, and later became a close confidante of the Great Khan. In the 1250s, Möngke Khan opened a series of debates at court between Buddhists and Daoists, with Confucians in attendance. In the end, Daoism lost out, and it even suffered some repression under Khubilai, but it was never stamped out. The Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism became very popular through the private academies throughout China during the Yuan.  13
Marco Polo (See 1271–95), the Venetian merchant who traveled widely in China (his “Cathay,” from Khitai) between 1275 and 1292 in the service of Khubilai, has been the source of Western fascination from his own day forward. His Description of the World was immediately translated into other languages of Europe, and it became an instant success. He left rich portraits of Hangzhou (Quinsai), Quanzhou (Zayton), and elsewhere in the Mongol Empire; in his time, Quanzhou was the busiest deep-sea port in the world.  14
In the realm of science, the itineraries of Zhao Rugua (1225) imply in the precision of their bearings the use of a compass needle mounted on a dry pivot. Meteorology developed to the extent that by the 14th century the correlation between climatic changes and the sunspot cycle was known.  15
During the Mongol period, new genres of literature appeared. Yuan drama, or zaju, developed in north China, combining music and acting, drawing on stories of older vintages. Vernacular fiction, perhaps begun at the end of the Song, developed further in the Yuan. It took several centuries for these genres to gain respectability.  16
Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) was considered one of the great masters of calligraphy in his day; he was as highly praised for his paintings of horses and other livestock that were prominent in the Mongol economy. Qian Xuan (1235–c. 1290) was perhaps the finest painter of flowers and insects. Yuan-period painters drew inspiration from the Northern Song artist Guo Xi, turning to a sharper, more expressionistic view of nature. Yuan porcelain reveals in its arabesques and its technique of writing in cobalt blue directly on clear white paste the debt of Chinese potters to Persian models. From these also is derived the Byzantine form of cloisonné.  17
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.