The Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) was China’s first foreign-led dynasty, and the 9th major dynasty overall, in between the Song and Ming dynasties.
It was established (officially) by Kublai Khan, leader of the vast Mongol Empire.
Genghis Khan and his bloodline set the basis for the Yuan Dynasty by conquering Central Asia, Mongolia, and the Hexi Corridor.
This gave them a huge base of manpower, technology, and expertise to finish the conquest of China and take control from the Song Empire.
By seizing control of the Silk Road trade route, the Mongols were also able to make a lot of money.
This control of trade gave them great political power even outside of their military conquest.When Genghis Khan died in 1227 AD, his son, Ogedei, took over.
Ogedei ruled the whole Mongolian Empire (including China) from 1229-1241 AD, but concentrated his efforts mostly on East Asia.
In 1232, Ogedei teamed up with the Song Dynasty to defeat the Jin armies. When Ogedei passed away, his son, Kublai, took over control of the army, and eventually became emperor.
Kublai had a very long rule compared to his father and used it to make the empire stronger and more prosperous.
In 1259, Kublai turned on the Southern Song Dynasty and committed to an official campaign against them – finishing the work his grandfather had started when they first invaded China.
In 1260, Kublai took the throne after his elder brother died. However, this was not a painless transition.
Kublai went to war with his other brother when the throne became available, as both men wanted to become the Emperor – or, as it was known then, the “Khan.”
After a long battle, Kublai won out in the end. This caused a split in the Mongol Empire.
The Golden Horde, a group of Mongols that controlled Russia, did not recognize Kublai Khan as their real leader due to the circumstances of his rise to power.
This weakened Kublai’s grasp on the west of Asia.Because of this, Kublai built up the eastern part of the empire as a base of power in the year 1261.
Kublai borrowed the government structure of the Song Dynasty to help control his country, but replaced all remaining Chinese government officials with foreigners – Kublai did not trust the Chinese, whom he felt would resent him for taking their country, and made sure not to give many Chinese people power in the country.
In 1271, Kublai Khan officially founded the Yuan Dynasty – which, for a short time, coexisted with the remnants of the Southern Song Dynasty – and in 1273, changed the course of Chinese history again with the introduction of paper money called chao (钞).
This was a very important invention for both China and the world. The Yuan empire was the first dynasty in the world to use paper currency as the main form of payment.
At the beginning of the Khans’ reign, cultural development was halted – compared to the Chinese’s philosophy to entertainment and culture, the Mongols were more practical.
They wanted to have big fun; theatrical entertainment with plenty of action and loud music, big feasts, and parties.
It was during the Yuan Dynasty that popular media began to be published in the common tongue of the people, and it was the first time that major literary works were produced for the purpose of entertaining the public.
The Yuan Dynasty did well to control China until the beginning of the 14th century. But from the 1330s onward, things began to decline for the Yuan Dynasty.
China was rocked by a host of natural disasters, (outbreaks of illnesses, floods, famines) which brought suffering and death to the masses.
Part of this was the ripple effect of the Black Death from Europe, the bubonic plague which had claimed so many lives in the continent to the west.
The bubonic plague had a horrible effect on China, and millions of people died as a result
The string of bad luck experienced by China at this time was believed to have been a message from the gods that the Yuan had lost the right to rule.
Because of this, in 1351 AD, a rebellion began – the Red Turban Rebellion. The rebellion was initially defeated, but one of the key leaders of the Rebellion (a man named Zhu Yuanzhang) returned 5 years later with another army.
He defeated all his rivals, and in 1368, attacked and defeated the Yuan court. Zhu Yuanzhang later went on to establish the Ming Dynasty – a Chinese dynasty once more, and an end to the reign of the Mongols in China.