The Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty

A rich cultural diversity evolved in China during the Yuan Dynasty, as it had in other periods of foreign dynastic rule. Major achievements included the development of drama and the novel and the increased use of the written vernacular. The Yuan was involved in a fair amount of cultural exchange because of its extensive West Asian and European contacts. The introduction of foreign musical instruments enriched the Chinese performing arts. The conversion to Islam of growing numbers of people in northwestern and southwestern China dates from this period. Nestorian Christianity and Roman Catholicism also enjoyed a period of toleration. Lamaism flourished, although native Daoism endured Mongol persecutions. Chinese governmental practices and examinations were reinstated by the Mongols in the hope of maintaining order within society. Advances were realized in the fields of travel literature, cartography, geography, and scientific education. Certain key Chinese innovations--such as printing techniques, porcelain playing cards, and medical literature--were introduced in Europe, while European skills, such as the production of thin glass and cloisonné, became popular in China.

The Mongols undertook extensive public works. Land and water communications were reorganized and improved. To provide against possible famines, new granaries were ordered to be built throughout the empire. Dadu was rebuilt with new palace grounds that included artificial lakes, hills, and parks, and the capital became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. These commercially oriented improvements encouraged overland as well as maritime commerce throughout Asia and facilitated the first direct Chinese contacts with Europe. Chinese and Mongol travelers to the West were able to provide assistance in such areas as hydraulic engineering, and they brought back to China new scientific discoveries, agricultural crops, methods of food preparation, and architectural innovations.

Early records of travel by Westerners to East Asia date from this time. Much that the Western world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries knew about the Mongols and Asia was the result of the famous missions of a Venetian trading family. The first mission was by two brothers, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, from 1260 to 1268. Another started in 1271, when they were joined by Niccolò's son, Marco. Marco Polo, who remained in Asia until 1295, was trusted by Khubilai Khan and undertook a number of diplomatic missions and administrative assignments for him throughout the empire. The account of his travels, Il milione (or, The Million, known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo), appeared about the year 1299 and astounded the people of Europe, who knew little of the highly developed culture of East Asia. The works of John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck also provided early descriptions of the Mongols to the West.

The Mongols sought, but failed, to govern China through its traditional institutions. At the outset, they discriminated against the Chinese socially and politically, monopolized the most important central and regional government posts, and developed an unprecedented and complex six-tier local-government administration. Mongols also preferred employing non-Chinese from other parts of the Mongol domain--Inner Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe--in those positions for which no Mongol could be found. Chinese, in turn, were more often employed in non-Chinese regions of the empire.

In time, Khubilai's successors became sinicized, and they then lost all influence on other Mongol lands across Asia. Gradually, they lost influence in China as well. The reigns of the later Yuan emperors were short and were marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated from both their Mongolian army and their Chinese subjects. China was torn by dissension and unrest; bandits ranged the country without interference from the weakening Yuan armies.

The last of the nine successors of Khubilai was expelled from Dadu in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and died in Karakorum in 1370. Although Zhu, who adopted Mongol military methods, drove the Mongols out of China, he did not destroy their power. A later Chinese army invaded Mongolia in 1380. In 1388 a decisive victory was won; about 70,000 Mongols were taken prisoner, and Karakorum was annihilated.

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