Yuan Dynasty: Facts, Timeline & Emperors

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

When was China not ruled by the Chinese? In this lesson, we'll explore this question and see how emperors of the Yuan Dynasty attempted to govern imperial China.

The Yuan Dynasty

Modern Greeks don't claim a seamless line of heritage back to ancient Greece, nor do modern Italians back to the Roman Empire. These powers were broken apart over time. So, what about China? When the last Chinese emperor was deposed in the 20th century, China claimed one of the longest lineages of political and cultural authority in the world. However, even imperial China could not create a millennia-old civilization without a few bumps in the road.

In the entire history of imperial China, there was only one period of time in which China was not actually ruled by the Chinese. This was the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), during which China was actually part of the greater Mongol Empire, the largest land-based empire the world has ever known. The Yuan Dynasty was a unique period in Chinese history, when this ancient civilization was caught between Mongolian and Chinese ambitions.

Kublai Khan, first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty
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Kublai and Temur, 1271-1307

Like any imperial dynasty, the history of the Yuan Dynasty is complex and intricate. Therefore, we're going to break it into three periods, starting with the foundational years. The Yuan Dynasty was founded by a Mongol ruler named Kublai Khan. His grandfather, Genghis Khan, had unified the Mongol factions into a single empire, but it was Kublai who finally toppled the Chinese Song Dynasty and achieved his grandfather's dream.

The official start of the Yuan Dynasty is traditionally marked at 1271 CE, the year that Kublai Khan claimed the Mandate of Heaven, which is the divine right to rule in Chinese tradition. The Song emperor had been forced to flee to southern China, and Kublai moved his capital into the city of Dadu (today Beijing). This was the first dynasty to rule from the city. Kublai Khan now controlled a vast empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and he immediately opened trade across the entire thing. Goods, money, ideas, and people flowed across Asia in a massive network of exchange known as the Silk Roads. This trade began impacting Europe too; the famed Venetian Marco Polo was just one of many merchants to make the journey. He arrived in Kublai's court in 1275, and lived there for 17 years.

European painting of a Chinese city, based on the accounts of Marco Polo
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Kublai Khan died in 1294, having created a massive empire, opened huge trade networks, and consolidated southern China into the Yuan Dynasty with the death of the last Song emperor in 1279. When Kublai died, the throne passed to his grandson, Temur Khan (r. 1294-1307). Temur Khan was an effective and able emperor, although the Mongol Empire divided into distinct khanates after the death of Kublai, so Temur really only ruled over China. Nevertheless, he instituted economic and political reforms, and his reign is seen as being successful.

Division and Corruption (1308-1333)

In 1307, Kublai Khan died without a male heir and a succession crisis ensued. Temur's nephew, Kulug Khan emerged as the third emperor of the dynasty and was crowned in 1308. However, Kulug died unexpectedly in 1311, and the throne passed to his brother, Ayurbawada Buyantu Khan. From here, it just got messier and messier. Here's a brief list of the Yuan emperors in this time period:

  • Kulug Khan (r. 1308-1311)
  • Ayurbawada Buyantu Khan (r. 1311-1321)
  • Gege'en Khan (r. 1321-1323)
  • Yesun Temur (r. 1323-1328)
  • Arigabag (r. 1328)
  • Jayaatu Khan Toq-Temur (r. 1328-1329)
  • Irinchibal Khan (r. 1329-1332)

As you can see from these dates, the Yuan Dynasty was becoming less and less stable. The Mongol families in China divided into a number of factions and became increasingly hostile and militaristic. At the same time, inflation skyrocketed in China, corruption was rampant, and the dissatisfaction rose among the people. Many of the Yuan emperors did try to correct economic and political issues in this time, but none were very successful.

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