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Yuan Dynasty: Achievements, Inventions & Technology

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If you think the conquests of Genghis and Kublai Khan were the only things to know about the Yuan Dynasty, you have much more to learn about this multifaceted family of Chinese rulers. To learn more, give this lesson a look.

The Mongolians

The steppes of Asia are the passageway from Asia to Europe, and were the home of the Mongols, who set their sights on conquering central Asia, and then all of China in the 1200s CE. When discussing the many achievements of the Mongols it is difficult to start with any other topic than militaristic gains, and with any other Mongolian figure than the 'Great Khan' himself known as Genghis Khan.

Genghis rose from the lower ranks of his family to take the helm of a warrior horde of conquerors, and then set about uniting all of the clans of Mongols who called the steppes home. Genghis then added Manchuria (Northeast China), and later the Muslim Khwarizm Dynasty (Iran) to his empire, all by the year 1221 CE.

After his death his son Ogedei became Khan, and added portions of Russia to the Mongol Empire. With a nation that spread throughout Asia and Europe, Genghis' family had an empire to rival that of Alexander the Great. Nonetheless, to the Mongolians China was the real prize.

China had been disjointed for centuries, fragmented into sections that were controlled by feudal lords. There was however one dynasty that had managed to remain in control of southern China called the Song Dynasty. Unfortunately, by 1279 CE the Song Dynasty was in decline, and their hold on the was tenable at best.

Enter the Mongolians led by the grandson of Genghis named Kublai Khan.

Militaristic Achievements of the Yuan Dynasty

In 1279 CE, Kublai defeated the Song and united all of China under one rule for the first time in 300 years. With the establishment of what became known as the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai also brought China into a period of militaristic, scientific, and cultural innovation that would bring the world into the future.

The Yuan Dynasty would rule China until 1368 CE, making theirs the shortest dynasty in imperial Chinese history. Nevertheless, the sheer number of achievements noted under their time as emperors are astonishing.

Cultural Achievements

Yuan Dynasty Dish
Dish

The first novels as literature were first developed under the Yuan Dynasty, one of which is credited to Luo Guanzhong and his 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' written in the later years of the dynasty. The novel tells a compelling story of the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history from the 1ate 100s through the mid-200s CE, with stories that are a blend of fiction and nonfiction.

Illustration from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Illustration

There was also the development of a new form of Chinese pottery created under the Yuan Dynasty noted for its distinct blue and white coloring and design. This form of pottery using blue and white color patterns, had long been used in China, however during the period of the Yuan Dynasty it reached its zenith.

Yuan Dynasty Vase
Vase

Also of note during the Yuan Dynasty was the development of landscape art, where beautiful scenes of Chinese natural life were portrayed with depth and scope so as to depict natural life through the painter's own view. Four Chinese painters would go one to characterize Chinese landscape art during these years named Huang Gongwang, Wang Meng, Wu Zhen, and Ni Zan.

Ni Zan-Six Gentlemen
Ni Zan

Yuan Dynasty Inventions and Technology

The Yuan Dynasty were also responsible for fostering and patronizing a spirit of scientific and medical advancements in China while they ruled. As the Yuan Dynasty's empire spread throughout Asia and Europe, one of the most unique qualities about the Yuan was their desire to open China to the world.

Previous dynasties all closed the wonders of China to the world save for the Silk Road, which created under the Han Dynasty in the 100s BC, allowed Chinese goods like silk and pottery to be transported to Europe and lower Asia. Under the Yuan Dynasty the Silk Road and Chinese ports were freely opened like never before, that would introduce to the world the superb technology and medical achievements of the Chinese.

Scientific Innovations

Diets lacking in certain nutrients had long been thought to be the causes of certain diseases throughout the developed world. However, not until Chinese doctor Hu Sihui wrote his book called 'Important Principles of Food and Drink' did the world receive its first detailed medical text on just which diseases were caused by certain nutrient deficiencies.

Most people think that it was Johannes Gutenberg who developed the world's first movable type printing apparatus, but he was only the first European to do so in 1439. It was the Chinese during the Song Dynasty who first developed the movable type printing press with interchangeable parts. Under the Yuan Dynasty the process was improved to make it a viable option for printing texts by Wang Zhen. Zhen used his movable type to mass produce his 'Book on Agriculture' to Chinese farmers.

Astronomy also met its height during the Yuan Dynasty when in 1280 Guo Shoujing created his new calendar that is only 26 seconds different than the calendar we use today. Called the 'Calendar for Fixing the Seasons', Shoujing determined that Earth's year was 365.2425 days long.

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