Yuan Dynasty: Social Structure, Economy & Trade

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

The Mongols who ruled China in the 1200s CE established a social structure, and economy, all their own. If you would like to learn more about the Yuan/Mongol Dynastic rule of China, this lesson is just for you.

The Mongols

Have you ever wondered why the Chinese built the Great Wall of China? The mighty horse-bound warriors from the steppes of Asia, known as the Mongols were the original reason why.

The area of Asia where the Mongols lived was called the steppes, and it resembled prairie land in that it was flat, vast, and mainly grassy and treeless. The Mongols were feared throughout Asia, and Europe as well, due to their advantageous location between both continents. With little natural resources on the steppes, the Mongols made themselves into warriors poised to conquer and plunder their way into an empire.

The Mongols relied mostly on horses and would go into battle as a huge cavalry which could attack with lightning speed. They carried swords which were curved in the middle allowing them to decapitate their enemies while galloping. Mongol archers were so skilled, they could shoot with alarming accuracy…even upon horseback.

Mongol Dynasty

In 1204 CE, Mongol leader Genghis Khan was able to do the impossible. The Mongols were many tribes who hated each other. These tribes all had their own khans (leaders) and frequently warred with each other. However, Genghis was able to unify all of the Mongol tribes under his leadership, making him the 'Great Khan' of all Mongolia.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan

Genghis cemented his rule through unbridled brutality. Keeping a warring people together is no small feat, and Genghis was able to accomplish this task by dealing with opposition harshly (even family). For example, when Genghis was still young he killed his half-brother in an argument.

Genghis also used tactics like killing all males over a certain height, to prevent survivors taking revenge, and boiling his foes alive to inspire fear of rebellion against his rule. In 1211 CE, Genghis attacked and conquered the northeast of China called Manchuria.

Mongol Tax Collector in Russia
Tax Collector

Then, in 1219 CE, Genghis started his brutal attack on the Muslin Khwarizm Dynasty. After slaughtering each and every one of the men, women, children, and animals his army encountered, Genghis then added Khwarizm territories to the Mongolian Empire in 1221 CE. Genghis died in 1227 CE, and his son, Ogedei, became the next Khan.

Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan

However, it would be Genghis' grandson Kublai Khan also called the 'Wise Khan', who finally conquered southern China's Song Dynasty in 1279 CE and brought all of China into the Mongol empire; by then it had become known as the Yuan Dynasty.

Yuan Social Structure

Although the Mongols were mighty, they had the shortest rule in Chinese history. ending in 1368 CE. While they ruled China they instituted a social structure that was much different than preceding dynasties. For example, the Yuan Dynasty mingled with foreigners (something dynasties before and after didn't do). The famed Venetian explorer Marco Polo was a huge figure in the Yuan court and held sway with Kublai Khan, his family, and his government. Polo lived among the Yuan court for many years, and became one of Kublai Khan's most important advisers and bureaucrats during his conquest of China.

Marco Polo
Marco Polo

The Yuan government was centralized in that the force behind their empire, was always in the hands of the Khan. The Khan would break the government into portions in which powerful agents (like Polo) would rule, with the Khan's approval in all things.

The social structure between the Yuan and the Chinese was always contentious, based on an 'us and them' mentality, that played a large role in the brevity of the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan cemented this fractious relationship between the Yuan and the Chinese in his Four Class System.

The Four Classes

The ethnic Chinese, known as the Han, largely outnumbered the Mongolians who controlled China. To favor the Mongols, Kublai Khan created a caste system, placing the ethnic Mongolians on top in a hierarchy of importance. Each ethnic group was organized based on the dates in which they were defeated.

The top class, was, of course, the Mongols. After which, came the Semus of central Asia (other tribes in the steppes), followed by the Hans of northern China. Lastly, was the southern Chinese who had belonged to the Song Dynasty.

The third and fourth classes had to take more rigorous exams for government jobs, which meant fewer of them qualified for those positions. They also faced harsher penalties for committing the same offenses as the to tow top classes under the Yuan. This meant that the Mongols and Semu had the most power under the Yuan, while the Han and southern Chinese suffered greatly.

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