Mongol Interlude (1271-1368)
An overview of the Mongol era in East Asia is included in the Timeline in Module 1. After the destruction of the Jin and Xixia states (of which 90% of the population was decimated), the Southern Song finally submitted to the Mongols in 1271. The Mongols had superior military organization and a better grasp of the advances in military technology (such as siege engines, primitive rockets, and simple cannons) than previous northern invaders—and for the first time China fell completely under foreign rule. As Wolfram Eberhard has noted, for the next 631 years, China would be under the control of foreign invaders for 355 years and under Chinese rule for only 276.
hū bì liè hàn
忽 必 烈 汗
Khubilai Khan, who had spear-headed the defeat of the Southern Song, founded a dynasty in China known as Yuan, and declared himself emperor. In order to keep the realm under control, he instituted a system of ethnic stratification that put Mongols of various origins at the top, other northern peoples such as the Uygurs and the surviving Tangut were in second place, while northern Chinese (who had a long history of interaction with the steppe people) were in the third position of trust, and the southern Chinese in the last. Many government and clerical positions were staffed with people from the northwest and Central Asia—especially Uygurs from the now Islamic areas of Xinjiang— who learned both Chinese and Mongolian. Most Chinese, especially in the rich Yangzi river valley were shut out of governmental appointments. Some scholars, like Guang Hanqing, released their creative energies by writing dramas, an art form that appealed to both the Chinese and their Mongol overlords.
Summer Palace in Chengde
As the Yuan dynasty progressed the economy weakened as large amounts of wealth left China in the hands of foreign merchants who were allowed many advantages over their Chinese counterparts. Pressure was also put on peasants by Chinese gentry who had been allowed to keep their lands and by Mongols who were given tracts of land as part of the spoils of war. The government also needed tax revenues and corvee labor for massive public works projects, such as the overhaul of the old canal system, which was now needed to transport rice from the fertile south to the more barren north. A huge new capital was built –today known as Beijing. Even Beijing was too hot for the Mongol rulers, and a special summer palace (in Tibetan style) was built farther north in Chengde, near the old Mongol homelands. As the economic system weakened and some Mongols became disenchanted with a sedentary lifestyle, popular discontent grew. After about eighty years, ruling China became increasingly difficult. The Mongols were finally driven out by a peasant rebel named Zhu Yuanzhang, who had found common cause with the patriotic Chinese gentry. Zhu would become emperor of the Ming dynasty—the last Han Chinese dynasty in imperial history.