Kublai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty - How the Mongols conquered China
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Yuan Dynasty China

Kublai Khan
Kublai Khan

October 2016 - In 1276 AD, when the Mongols invaded and took over China, they had already been ruling a large empire for about fifty years. Their empire stretched from India and Russia to northern China and Korea. In 1276 the Mongols captured the Sung capital at Hangzhou, and by 1279 the Mongols controlled all of China. Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader, moved the capital of the Mongol empire from Karakorum in Central Asia to Beijing, China. In 1271, when he was 56, Kublai Khan declared himself emperor of China.

Kublai Khan tried to conquer Japan in 1274 and 1281 AD, but was prevented by a great storm. He also tried to recapture northern Vietnam (Annam) and Burma, but without much success. Even in China, Kublai Khan was not very popular. The Chinese were very angry that Kublai Khan gave foreigners (mostly Muslims from Central Asia) all the jobs as governors and judges, instead of choosing Chinese people. But Kublai Khan did not trust the Chinese. And the Chinese were also angry that the Mongols kept their own language and customs, and didn't want to act like the Chinese.

On the other hand, the Yuan Dynasty emperors did promote a lot of trade over the Silk Road, and China became richer as a result. The Mongols also used tax policy to promote growing cotton for clothing, and under the Yuan Dynasty most Chinese people switched from wearing hemp clothing to wearing cotton, which was cheaper and cooler in the summer.

Kublai Khan died in 1294 AD. By the 1330s, people all over the whole Mongol Empire were suffering from the Black Death - the bubonic plague. Millions of people died in China. The plague made it hard to keep the empire together.

During the 1350s AD, a revolutionary movement called the Red Turbans became active in northern China. In 1356, the Red Turbans, under the leadership of Chu Yuan-chang, captured Nanjing. Chu Yuan-chang gradually conquered China, and threw out the Mongols. In 1368 AD Chu Yuan-chang declared himself emperor of China, under the name Hung-wu, and then he finally captured the Mongol capital at Beijing, starting the Ming Dynasty.

Learn by doing: watch the movie of Mulan, where the Chinese are fighting off the Mongols
Go on to Ming Dynasty China

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese history:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). .

China (History of Nations), by Greenhaven Press (2002). For teens. The negative review on Amazon is actually for a different book - don't be alarmed!

The Mongol Empire, by Mary Hull (1998). For teens.

Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, by Morris Rossabi (1990). A biography for adults, sticking closely to historical sources.

More about the Mongol Empire
The Mongols in India
The Ming Dynasty
Ancient China


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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