The Yuan Dynasty was founded in 1271 by the Mongol warlord, Kublai Khan, and lasted until 1368. The Mongol Empire ruled a huge area of land covering much of Asia and Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries. Song China was one of the last areas to be added to this vast Empire.
During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the Mongol Empire captured the Northern area of China, which had been under the control of the Jin Dynasty since 1127. This occurred in 1234, and provided the Mongol Empire with a perfect position for its attack on the Southern Song Dynasty. By 1271, the Mongols had overthrown the Song Dynasty, and founded the Yuan Dynasty, with their capital in modern-day Beijing.
There were only two times in China's dynastic history that the country was ruled by foreigners: 1) The Yuan Dynasty, which was ruled by the Mongols. 2) The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which was ruled by the Manchus. The task of ruling a country that is culturally and linguistically different to your own is a huge task. Yet, the Mongol leaders never mastered the Chinese language and treated Chinese customs with suspicion.
Kublai Khan was unlike previous Mongol leaders in that he desired the support of the people he ruled. In the past, Mongol leaders often treated the population of their conquered lands very badly. However, Kublai ruled much as previous Chinese emperors had.
For example, he centralized government, and adopted Chinese customs for ruling the country. He employed Chinese officials, although the most important posts were typically reserved for follow Mongols. He also extended the Grand Canal and highways as a way to improve trade and communications.
However, many of Kublai's successors were not as benevolent or accepting of Chinese customs as he was. Many were corrupt and created discontent among the Chinese people. However, some rulers -- such as Buyantu Khan -- ruled in much the same way as Kublai, and even re-introduced the civil service examinations as a way of promoting officials based on merit. Yet, no rulers of the Yuan Dynasty really led an economically successful China, and trade restrictions hurt the economy.
The Mongols instituted a type of social hierarchy with themselves at the top and Southern Chinese at the bottom. Likewise, while Han Chinese was used as officials in certain cases, the Mongols always received the best positions. This likely contributed to the discontent among the populace. Natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, caused famines which brought further unrest among the Chinese people.
Despite the fact that the Yuan Dynasty was a period of foreign rule, cultural developments were not stopped. The sciences, literature and art, and religion developed in unique ways during this period. Tibetan Buddhism was adopted as the official religion by the Mongols, and other religions such as Islam also gained favor.
The Red Turban Rebellion grew in strength in the mid-14th century, which led to the Mongol rulers giving local warlords more autonomy. This contributed to the de-centralization of the government power. In 1368, the forces behind the Ming Dynasty proved too much for the weakened Yuan army, and the foreign rule collapsed. This marked the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, and the return of power to the Chinese.
The Yuan Dynasty was a very short dynasty, lasting just under a century.
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