Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty is more popularly known as the Mongol Dynasty or the Mongolian Empire. In their early years, the Mongols were not a particularly distinguished people. They lived in the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, now known as Outer Mongolia.

As nomads, the Mongols were separated into numerous tribes that roamed the deserts in search for fresh pasture for their flocks. They were a loosely knit group that came together for annual gatherings. They had some form of governance as they chose chieftains to lead them.

Their form of worship was an animist type of religion. They believed that there were spirits everywhere in nature. Their main god was the Sky, which was supposed to rule over all the other lesser deities. They had holy men, or shaman, who was supposed to be the bridge between the god and the people.

This simple lifestyle was turned upside down when Yesügei, a tribal chief, sired a son whom he named Temüjin. He later on became to be known as Genghis Khan, a named recognized even by the modern world. Scholars estimate his birth to be around 1160. His name also means ?Universal Ruler.

It was in 1206 that Mongolia was formally established. Genghis Khan achieved this by unifying the formerly scattered tribes. A mixture of leadership, military prowess, brutality, and diplomacy gave him the means to conquer and bring the tribes together.

On the outset, Genghis Khan came up with the Yassa. The Yassa was a written code of rules and regulations that the Mongols were supposed to strictly follow. This code pertained to very specific aspects of their daily lives and was supposed to settle any issues that may come up in their society. The punishment for even minor offenses was very often death.

Historians say that the Yassa is comparable to the 10 Commandments as its governing idea was Love One Another. Genghis Khan was supposed to be tolerant of any religion but the Yassa shows marked prejudice against Islam. It bans slaughtering any animal for rituals. This in effect hinders performing some of the Muslims' rituals. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian Empire became widely known all over the world. They gained the reputation of being brutal and swift to bring their opponents to their knees. The army was known to be the fastest and most efficient in their time.

Most of them rode on horseback and could travel long distances in short periods of time. They were known to lay siege to towns that posed any opposition and at the end of the siege, they would kill all the inhabitants of that town. Due to this reputation, many settlements chose to surrender rather than to put up any fight.

To the Europeans of this time, the word Mongol was synonymous to barbarian. Tales of brutality and massacre were what reached the West. However, it cannot be conclusively said today that everything attributed to the Mongolians were due them. Historians believe that those tales could have been embellished to the point that they question just how ?bad? the Mongolians were. Largely due to Genghis Khan's leadership style and military tactics, the Mongolian Empire grew to encompass a very large area. Their consistent attacks on China gave them a large part of that land. The Mongolian army also conquered lands to west and south ? as far as Poland, Russia, Siberia, Korea and Vietnam.

The Mongolian Empire would probably have conquered even more lands if Genghis Khan had not died in 1227. Due to the lack of details on his death, numerous theories and stories have blossomed. The most common story is that he fell off his horse.

Just as the circumstances of his death are mysterious, so is the exact location of his grave. Some claim that it is in a mausoleum in China. However, there are reports that it may be somewhere in the Mongolian steppes.

The Mongolian Empire did not die with its founder and leader. In fact, it continued to flourish way after the death of Genghis Khan. The Empire was divided into four parts called Khanates. The Khanates were each ruled by a khan who was in turn under one Great Khan. The four Khanates are: The Kipchak Khanate, or Golden Horde, ruled Russia; the Ilkhanate ruled Persia and the Middle East, the Chagatai Khanate ruled over western Asia, and the Great Khanate controlled Mongolia and China.

Although it was Genghis Khan who created the foundations for the Mongolian Empire, it was his grandson Kublai Khan who formally founded the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan became the Great Khan in 1260. In 1264, he relocated the capital from Mongolia to Khanbaliq in China. This is now known as Beijing.

It was in 1271 that he adopted the Chinese name Yuan to indicate his Dynasty. He was the first foreigner to ever rule China. Though Kublai Khan adopted a Chinese name, he did not speak the language. His attitude as well as his followers' ? was generally negative towards anything Chinese.

Throughout the course of his rule, he was able to implement numerous reforms to the benefits of his kingdom. He consolidated power and centralized the government. His form of government was an absolutist monarchy.

Probably his greatest material achievement would be the Forbidden Palace. It was considered a Mongolian haven in the midst of China. The Mongolians in general, never really let go of their roots and remained aloof from the Chinese throughout the life of the Dynasty.

A continuous exchange of culture and practices existed in the Yuan Dynasty. This was primarily due to the flourishing trade between the East and West. Historians consider the development of the novel and drama as the major cultural developments of this time. They also developed a written vernacular, which facilitated cultural and ideological exchanges even more.

East and West came together as western instruments were introduced to China, providing a new sound to the already rich Chinese music tradition. Different religions were tolerated within the empire. Buddhism was the official religion but Christianity, Islam, and Lamaism all had a place in the society.

The Yuan Dynasty's reputation reached as far as Europe. Visitors from the West reportedly visited China during this era. The most well-known would be Marco Polo. He even served in Kublai Khan's court from 1275-1291.

Of the major Chinese dynasties, the Yuan Dynasty was the shortest-lived. The fall of the Yuan could be attributed to several factors. Undeniably, Kublai Khan and his immediate successor were good leaders. After their reigns though, the succeeding emperors were not able to live up to their predecessors.

The Yuan's rule became punctuated with uprisings in the North as the Mongols believed that the rulers have become too assimilated with the Chinese. On the other hand, the native Chinese grew increasingly bitter at the way they were being treated. Perhaps also due to the fact that the Yuan never totally embraced the Chinese culture, the Chinese people also never saw them as a legitimate Dynasty.

Natural occurrences added further to aggravate the situation. The Yellow River's course changed and caused flooding, which later on brought about famine. The already discontented people suffered even more.

The end came in 1368 when a peasant called Chu Yuan-chang successfully led an army to oust the Yuan Dynasty. He was able to take the capital and drove the Yuan back to Mongolia. Chu Yuan-chang then founded what is now known as the Ming Dynasty.