The Yuan Dynasty: China’s First Non-Han Dynasty

The Yuan dynasty (), or the Great Yuan (), was a Mongol-led dynasty of China, and that was created when the Mongol empire fractured and became divided. The division of the Mongol Empire began in 1259 on the death of Möngke Khan who had no named successor. A turbulent period in Mongol history followed, characterized by infighting and multiple civil wars. These wars took their toll on the Mongol Empire which eventually divided into four separate khanates, including the Yuan dynasty based in Beijing.

The Yuan dynasty was established by Kublai Khan, brother of Möngke Khan and grandson of Genghis Khan, and lasted less than 100 years. It was formally established in 1271 and continued until 1368. During the early years of this new dynasty, the Yuan was still at war with the Southern Song, and it was not until 1279 that the Southern Song was eventually fully defeated at the Battle of Yamen. The Yuan dynasty was the first dynasty to rule over all of China which was founded by a non-Han ethnic group. It followed the Song dynasty and was succeeded by the Ming dynasty.

The Yuan dynasty founder, Kublai Khan, placed his grandfather Genghis Khan on the imperial records as the official founder of the dynasty and gave him the temple name Taizu. It was in 1271 that Kublai Khan announced the name of his new dynasty as the Great Yuan.

Kublai Khan claimed the title of Great Khan, as well as the Emperor of China, and nominally ruled over the three other Mongol Khanates that were formed when the Mongol Empire divided. However, Kublai Khan had little control over these khanates which continued in their own separate ways.

The Yuan Dynasty was defeated by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. The Yuan retreated back to the Mongolian Plateau where they continued to rule but later surrendered to the Later Jin Dynasty, which subsequently evolved into the Qing Dynasty.

Key Facts

  • Dynasty dates: 1271 – 1368.
  • Preceding dynasty: Song, 960 – 1271.
  • Subsequent dynasty: Ming, 1368 – 1644
  • First Yuan emperor: Kublai Khan, reigning from 1271 to 1294.
  • Total number of Yuan emperors: 11 (1271 -1368).
  • Longest and final Yuan emperor reign: Toghon Temür, reigning from 1333 to 1368.

The Founding of the Yuan Dynasty

In the early part of the 13th Century, the northern Jin (Jurchen) state came under repeated attacks from the Mongols under the direction of Genghis Khan. After two decades of conflict the Jin capital at Kaifeng was captured in 1233 and the Jin lands subsequently fell to the Mongols in 1234.

Concerned at the rise of the Mongols, and a longstanding desire to defeat the Jin, the Song dynasty, which ruled most of China at the time, formed a military alliance with the Mongols. The alliance didn’t last long after the Song launched attacks and captured the three historical capital cities of Kaifeng, Luoyang, and Chang’an. These Song tactics enraged the Mongols, and Ögodei Khan (son of Genghis Khan) went on a massive offensive, conquering most of Sichuan, ransacking, and capturing Chengdu where over 1 million people were slaughtered.

Later, in 1259 the Mongols, led by Möngke Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan), attacked the southern area of Guangxi and a number of other provinces, including Shandong and Henan. Möngke Khan died in 1259 during an attack on Chongqing. His death initiated a Mongol succession crisis that ended with his younger brother, Kublai Khan, becoming the new Mongol leader.

Kublai Khan continued to fight the Southern Song into the autumn of 1259 gaining territory. By the winter of 1259, Kublai Khan had to suspend the war and travel north with the majority of his troops to deal with a civil war, effectively another Mongol succession crisis, this time agitated by Kublai Khan’s younger brother Ariq Böke. In Kublai Khan’s absence, the Song resumed the conflict, routing the small remaining Mongol army. In the spring of 1260, Kublai Khan sent envoys to try and negotiate with the Southern Song; this effort was not particularly successful. Distracted by the Mongol civil war, conflicts between the Song and Mongols were less intense during the period 1260 to 1264, but reignited in 1265 with a major battle in Sichuan province, where Kublai Khan achieved victory by seizing almost 150 Song naval ships.

To feed the war effort the Song government began to confiscate parts of estates owned by the rich landowners as part of a widespread land nationalization scheme. Not surprisingly this didn’t go down too well with the landowners and this hastened the collapse of the Song dynasty, particularly as the rich landowners seemed to be siding with the marauding Mongols.

At the same time, there was increasing political opposition against the Song Chancellor, Jia Sidao. Meanwhile, Kublai Khan was gaining favor with defectors from the Southern Song by granting land. He also released Song prisoners captured by the Mongols.

The siege of Xiangyang took place from 1268 to 1273. The city of Xiangyang was the last obstacle before the riches of the Yangtze River basin and was captured by Kublai Khan using naval forces to blockade and cut off the city. Further advances and victories allowed the Yuan to conquer nearly all of the Southern Song’s territory, including the capital at Hangzhou by 1276.

By this time the remnants of the Song court had fled to Fuzhou. The Empress Dowager Xie surrendered to the Yuan, and the Song emperor at the time, Gong, was given the title ‘Duke of Ying’ by Kublai Khan, but was subsequently exiled to Tibet.

Hope of any final resistance by the Song relied on two young princes, Emperor Gong’s brothers. The older brother, who was only nine years old, was declared emperor in June 1276 in Fuzhou. The Song court sought safe refuges, firstly at Quanzhou, and then on Lantau Island (now part of Hong Kong). The older brother became ill and died in May 1278, aged ten, and was succeeded by his younger brother who became Emperor Bing, aged seven. In March 1279, the Song army was defeated by the Yuan army at the Battle of Yamen in the Pearl River Delta. Legend has it that the Song Prime Minister jumped from his sinking ship into the sea with the boy emperor in his arms, drowning both of them.

With the death of its last emperor, the Song dynasty was over. Kublai Khan then established the Yuan dynasty in its entirety, ruling over vast territories covering China, Mongolia, Manchuria, Tibet, and Korea.

The Yuan Dynasty Founder and First Emperor – Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan (b. 1215, d. 1294), also known by his temple name Emperor Shizu and his reigning name Setsen Khan proclaimed the founding of the Great Yuan dynasty in 1271, and ruled Yuan China until his death in 1294.

Kublai Khan was the second son of Genghis Khan’s son Tolui. Kublai Khan succeeded his older brother Möngke as the Mongol Khagan in 1260, but fought and defeated his younger brother Ariq Böke in the Toluid Civil War of succession that lasted until 1264. This turbulent period in Mongol history was the beginning of the end of the huge Mongol empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to modern-day Afghanistan.

In 1271, Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty but it was not until 1279 that the Yuan finally defeated the remnants of the Song dynasty. Kublai Khan then became the first non-Han emperor to rule over all of China.

The early years of Kublai Khan’s reign were not easy. There were family challenges to his authority, including one from Kaidu, the grandson of Kublai Khan’s uncle Ögedei. The Song were also troublesome until they were finally defeated in 1279.

Kublai Khan was able to secure the Yuan northeast border in 1259 by installing a puppet ruler of Goryeo (Korean peninsula), making it a Mongol subsidiary state. Kublai Khan also had to deal with problems in the home territories, including a revolt led by Li Tan, the son-in-law of a powerful court official, in 1262. Kublai Khan was able to stamp out the revolt but this led Kublai Khan to reduce the power and influence of Han officials at the Yuan court.

Kublai Khan had to find a fine balance between preserving the Mongol interests in China, whilst satisfying the demands of the Chinese population. He brought about a number of reforms recommended by his Chinese court advisers to centralize government administration, expand the circulation of paper money, and maintain the traditional salt and iron monopolies. He also restored the Imperial Secretariat and left the local administrative structure of previous dynasties unchanged. However, he did not agree to revive the Confucian imperial examination system for court advisors and he devised and implemented a social class system with initially three, and later four tiers, with Han Chinese placed at the bottom tier.

Kublai Khan promoted commerce, science, and cultural development. Kublai Khan’s promotion of domestic and international commerce was focused on the Silk Road and its network of merchants, and the expansion of the Grand Canal that extended from southern China to Daidu in the north. He protected the Mongol postal system, constructed necessary infrastructure, and provided loans to help finance trade caravans. As a result, there was a significant exchange of technology, commodities, and culture between China and the West. Kublai Khan encouraged a cosmopolitan society, welcoming foreign visitors to his court, including the famed Venetian merchant Marco Polo.

After 1279, Kublai Khan’s administration began to face significant financial difficulties. Wars and construction projects had drained the Mongol financial resources, and subsequent attempts to raise taxes became mired in corruption and scandals.

The last years of Kublai Khan’s reign were not happy times. His favorite wife, Chabi, died in 1281, followed by the death of his chosen heir, the Crown Prince Zhenjin, in 1285. Kublai Khan grew despondent and depressed, and retreated from his imperial duties, often overindulging in food and alcohol.

In 1293 he became ill and died in February 1294 at the age of 78. Before his death, Kublai Khan nominated Zhenjin’s son Temür to become the next leader (Khagan) of the Mongol Empire and the second Yuan emperor.

Internal and International Conflicts During Kublai Khan’s Reign

Kublai Khan pursued a policy aimed at expanding the Yuan empire. Aside from his commitment to fully defeat and destroy the Song dynasty in the southern part of China during the early part of his reign, he drove international territory acquisition, not always successfully.

Kublai Khan’s policy to rid China of the Song dynasty was aided by powerful families and tribes in the south. The Duan family ruled the Kingdom of Dali in Yunnan but were overthrown by the Yuan dynasty although they were allowed to continue to rule somewhat independently, but still under the control of the Yuan administration. The Duans helped the Yuan to continue a number of military offensives against the Song. Other local chieftains, tribe leaders, and kingdoms in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, such as the ethnic Han Yang family that ruled the Chiefdom of Bozhou and the Luo clan in Shuxi, also submitted to Yuan rule and were allowed to retain their titles.

Kublai Khan led an unsuccessful naval expedition against Japan in 1274. He tried again in 1281, but this also failed mainly because of the typhoon. Other territorial expansion campaigns in Vietnam, and Indonesia (Java) were also unsuccessful. However, there was some limited success in Myanmar. The limited success of Kublai Khan’s international campaigns was caused by outbreaks of disease, unfamiliar climatic conditions, and the local terrain that was not suitable for the mounted Yuan military forces.

Art and Culture During the Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan dynasty saw significant development in painting, particularly landscape painting, calligraphy, poetry, and performing arts. Many of China’s painters and calligraphers hail from the Yuan period.

Yuan poetry saw the development of the classical Chinese Qu form of poetry which became the most prevalent form of poetry in Yuan times. Qu poetry follows a particular structure using a number of set tone patterns based on a number of popular songs.

Many of the Yuan poets were also involved in the development of the performing arts and theatre during the Yuan period. Zaju variety shows incorporated Qu poetry as well as more classical forms of poetry.

Religion During Yuan Dynasty

There were a variety of religions practiced during the Yuan dynasty, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Whilst the Yuan dynasty dramatically increased the number of Muslims in China, the Yuan dynasty did not convert to Islam. Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty, favored Tibetan Buddhism which became the effective state religion. A powerful government agency called the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs was set up in Khanbaliq (modern-day Beijing) to supervise Buddhist monks throughout the Yuan empire. Members of the Tibetan Buddhism Sakya sect held powerful positions at the Yuan court.

Many upper-class Mongols, as well as the emperors, also patronized Confucian scholars and institutions. The traditional Chinese religion of Taoism, especially Quan Zhen, a branch of Taoism, was also allowed to freely develop throughout Yuan China.

Mongols employed Central Asian Muslims to serve as administrators in China. However, Genghis Khan, and the subsequent Yuan emperors, forbade Islamic practices such as Halal butchering and enforced Mongol methods of butchering animals on Muslims. Jews were also subject to restrictive Yuan laws. Circumcision was banned and Jews were forbidden to eat Kosher food.

The Fall of the Yuan Dynasty

The final years of the Yuan dynasty were a very troubled time for China. The population had to deal with famines and natural disasters such as floods and droughts which played havoc with agricultural production. Gradually resentment toward the imperial dynasty began to materialize. The successors of Kublai Khan had lost any remaining influence on other Mongol khanates and they gradually began to lose influence at home in China as well. The reigns of the final Yuan emperors were short and troubled with much in-fighting and rivalry. These emperors became uninterested in the day-to-day rule of the empire and became out of touch with the increasingly unhappy Chinese people. At the same time, the Yuan military became weak without effective and coordinated leadership. China became a place of sedition, dissension, and unrest, and hordes of outlaws and bandits were able to rampage through the country unchecked by the Yuan armies.

The 1351 Red Turban Revolution led by Song loyalists grew into a nationwide revolt and led to the brief establishment of a renewed Song dynasty based at its former capital Kaifeng. The Yuan emperor at the time was Huizong (Toghon Temür) who ruled from 1333 to 1368. Whilst the re-established Song were eventually pushed out, Toghon Temür had to increasingly rely on local warlords for military power. He began to lose interest in politics and withdrew from dealing with power struggles. He fled north to Shangdu in 1368 after Ming forces, under the direction of Zhu Yuanzhang, began to take control of Yuan lands. Zhu Yuanzhang assumed power as the first Ming emperor, bringing China back under Han control. Pockets of Yuan resistance remained in various parts of China. The Ming gradually defeated these Yuan sympathizers and the remaining remnants of Yuan support retreated to Mongolia. The Great Yuan carried on there but were known as the Northern Yuan dynasty.


The Yuan dynasty proper in China was relatively short-lived. During Yuan times, similar to other dynasties, there was positive development of the arts and culture scene, and famous emperors such as Kublai Khan promoted international trade and commerce resulting in a cosmopolitan and diverse society.

The final decades of the Yuan dynasty were troubled times characterized by a combination of natural disasters, a disgruntled population, out-of-touch emperors, and collapsing military strength.

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