Then Yuan Dynasty was the first non-Han dynasty to rule China and it was also the shortest-lived dynasty out of the last 5 major dynasties of China, ruling for only 97 years. However, it was during this dynasty that the largest area of China was covered.
In 1206, Genghis Khan established the Mongol empire and started the aggressive Mongol invasions of the Western Xia and Jin dynasties, among many others. During his life, the Mongol empire occupied a substantial portion of Central Asia and China. He died in 1227 after defeating the Tanguts (Western Xia).
(left - right): Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan, one of Genghis Khan's grandsons, then came into power in 1260, founding the Yuan dynasty and becoming the first non-Chinese emperor.
Girl of Hui Nationality
During the Yuan Dynasty, economic and cultural exchanges were frequent among different nationalities. The Hui nationality (the Muslim-Chinese) was also formed during this period. The Yuan Empire had an extremely vast territory, drawing a basic outline of present China's territory.
On the other hand, society was divided into four classes in order of privilege: Mongols, "Color-eyed" (Central Asians, mostly Uyghurs and Tibetans), Han (Han Chinese in northern China, Manchus, and Jurchens), and Southerners (Han Chinese within Southern Song and other ethnic groups). The Han Chinese was oppressed and discriminated socially and politically.
The Yuan regime can be divided into three periods: the early, middle and late periods. The early period started from the reign of Kublai Khan until 1294. During this period, rulers adopted laws from the Han nationality and set up political, economic and cultural systems that promoted social development. Conversely, Kublai Khan's two disastrous attempts at invading Japan in search for gold proved to be too costly and he overtaxed the people to fund his war attempts.
The middle years (1307 to 1323) marked a period of decline. During this period, social conflicts and the competition for imperial power intensified and included continuous uprisings all around the country.
Among all the emperors, Emperor Renzong (1311 - 1321) was the best educated Mongol in Chinese culture and he was very familiar with Confucian classics and Buddhist sutras. During his reign, the state council was staffed with experienced loyal officials of Mongol and Chinese origin. He restored the state examination system that gave the Chinese access to an official career and he established traditional institutions using Han Chinese bureaucrats.
From 1329 in the late-Yuan period, peasant uprisings accelerated the decline of the regime. Regrettably, despite Emperor Renzong's efforts, Emperor Wenzong's reign was marked by permanent rebellions of discontent Mongol nobles and ethnic minorities in Yunnan and by increased pressured from the peasantry in China. The failure to assimilate the Chinese by treating them fairly was one of the reasons why the dynasty fell in less than 100 years.
Marco Polo (1254-1324) is probably the most famous Westerner traveled on the Silk Road. He excelled all the other travelers in his determination, his writing, and his influence. His journey through Asia lasted 24 years and he reached further than any of his predecessors, beyond Mongolia to China. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294) and he traveled the whole of China and returned to tell the tale, which became the greatest travelogue.
The fact that Marco was not a historian did not stop him offering a long history about the Mongols. He provided a detailed account of the rise of Mongol and Great Khan's life and empire. His account of the Mongol's life is particularly interesting when compared to the tale of many wonders of Chinese civilization. Kublai Khan, though ruling with all the spender of an Emperor of China, never forgot where he had come from. During his long stay in Cathay, Marco had many conversations with Kublai and came to appreciate the Great Khan's awareness of his Mongol origins. The detail in which the Mongols are described in his book suggests that he was moved to make a close study of their ways.
Marco, a gifted linguist and a master of four languages, became a favorite with the Khan and was appointed to high posts in his administration. He served at the Khan's court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India.
In addition, Marco Polo traveled a great deal in China. He was amazed with China's enormous power, great wealth, and complex social structure. China under the Yuan (The Mongol Empire) Dynasty was a huge empire whose internal economy dwarfed that of Europe.
Much of what he wrote, regarded with suspicion at medieval time was, confirmed by travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Marco Polo is receiving deeper respect than before because these marvelous characters and countries he described did actually exist. What is more interesting is that his book has become a great value to Chinese historians, as it helps them understand some of the most important events of the 13th century, such as the attempted conquests of Japan. The extent Chinese sources on these events are not as comprehensive as Marco's book, which has definitely contributed to ancient Chinese history