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The Mongol Empire: Kublai Khan's Impact on China

Kubli Khan

Kubli Khan

A Mongolian Emperor

The Mongolian Empire had an overarching impact on China during Kublai Khan’s (1215-1294) reign. During the 13th century, a period of Mongolian peace (Pax Mongolica) led to “economic growth, cultural diffusion, and developments.” During this period, he opened China to cultural diversity and promoted various religions. Kublai Khan contributed to the fast growth of China’s economy by reopening and enhancing trade routes. He reformed China’s political structure to have a closed social hierarchy. His dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), led to the development of Chinese literature and architectural style. Therefore, Kublai Khan influenced China’s economy, culture, political structure, architecture and literature during his rule.

Cultural and Religious Diversity Increased

Kublai Khan introduced China to cultural diversity and promoted different religions. During his reign, China became a vital cultural transmission between “China and the rest of the world”. In various regions, Kublai Khan sought out craftsmen, artisans, and employed assistants under their civil service. As a result, many citizens from different cultures moved to Yuan. A prime example was Marco Polo’s exploration within Kublai Khan’s territory as shown in his travels book. As described, Polo worked under Kublai Khan’s court for seventeen years. However, historians question the validity of his book as he sensationalised his recount to gain readers. Kublai Khan promoted various religions, such as Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism. Kublai promoted Buddhism as he placed a Tibetan Lama, ‘Phags-pa, to become the head of the Buddhist faith in all of Mongolia. This led to more constructions of Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist text translations. According to The History of China, the number of monks in China grew to over 500,000 during Mongol rule. How contemporary China’s main religion is still Buddhism highlighted Kublai’s impact. Ultimately, Kublai Khan significantly influenced cultural diversity and promoted various religions within China.

Impact on the Economy

Kublai Khan contributed to the growth of China’s economy by reopening and improving trading routes. After Kublai Khan conquered the Sung Dynasty, he promoted agricultural and commercial growth within Yuan. As a result, he constructed and reopened trading routes that became significant for China’s economy. This led to the globalisation of the Yuan Dynasty. For instance, he reopened and protected the Silk Road that allowed western merchants to trade with China. This was revealed through Italian Merchant, Francesco Pegolotti’s (1310-1347) book, La Pratica Della Mercatura. The fact that he had “extensive knowledge of the Silk Road” illustrated how connected China’s trading system was to western society. However, this connection shortly lasted, as in 1433, the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644) isolated China, banning all foreign trade. Moreover, how Kublai Khan extended the Grand Canal system substantially benefited China’s economy. According to Far Eastern Economic Review article under Arteries of the Empire, the Yuan Dynasty constructed a canal that connected the Yangtze River to transport grain to Beijing. This had grown to carry 400 000 tonnes of grain rice during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Thus, it played a major role in agriculture, trade and communication that “continued in uninterrupted use” in modern China. Henceforth, he immensely improved China’s economy, yet was undermined due to China’s isolation in 1433.

Kublai Khan reorganised the political system of China into a closed social hierarchy. Before he conquered the Sung Dynasty (Southern China 960-1279) in 1271, it had an open hierarchy that allowed citizens to advance based on civil examination. Thus, the Confucian Chinese literati had extensive privileges as they were the “proper leaders of society and government.” Nevertheless, Kublai Khan reformed this society to have elite classes exclusively those who inherited it. He established a new hierarchy within his territory: the Mongols, Central China, North China, and South China. Since Mongol society was based on military principles; the military household, artisans, and craftsmen gained privileges, while the literati was demoted. According to Chinese Social History: Translations of Selected Studies, the number of artisans in Yuan increased to 400 000. This revealed how desired the status of an artisan was due to its privileges. However, this number was questioned as the Mongols were under a strict rule to spare the artisans during battle. This meant “ordinary people would claim themselves as artisans to save their lives.” Nonetheless, this political system lasted until the Ming Dynasty overthrew the Yuan Dynasty. The Ming founder, Zhu Yuanzhang (1368-1398), reinstated the status of the Chinese literati and the civil examination. Henceforth, the Kublai Khan had a substantial impact on China’s political structure, yet lasted after their downfall.

Another photo of the Emperor

Another photo of the Emperor

The Yuan Dynasty influenced the styles of architecture and literature of China. During Kublai Khan’s reign, he established a regime where the literati lost their elite power. The impoverished literati were forced to write entertainment for their Mongol masters. This led to the creation of masterpieces known as Yuan Drama. It developed the genre Zaju, which was a collection of poetic musical drama. The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang (1250-1350) is one such example that is adapted in the 2010 film Sacrifice. That highlighted how it still remains to be an essential aspect of classical Chinese literature. As an architectural benefit, Kublai Khan established Khanbaliq in Beijing as the Yuan Capital in 1272. Its palace contained housings of “the Khan’s worship, the holding of imperial audience, and private affairs.” The architecture established by Kublai Khan influenced architecture styles centuries later. In 2016, excavations found the foundations of the Khanbaliq directly underneath the Forbidden City. Wang Guang, the deputy director of the Palace Museum, stated how Yuan’s architectural style “runs uninterrupted from the Yuan, to the Ming and Qing dynasties." Ultimately, the Yuan Dynasty fundamentally impacted China’s literature and architecture.

Mongol empire

Mongol empire

A Lasting Legacy

Kublai Khan crucially impacted the cultural diversity and various religions within his territory. He reopened the Silk Road and improved the Great Canal, which substantially enhanced China’s economy. That impact was undermined after the Ming Dynasty closed China’s borders. He transformed China’s political system based on military principles that closed its social hierarchy. The system ended shortly when the Ming Dynasty took over and reinstated its original political structure. How Yuan literature is currently being adapted to films and how Yuan’s architectural style runs “uninterrupted” centuries later highlights Kublai Khan’s legacy. Consequently, the Mongolian Empire will remain immortal in Chinese history due to its significant impact on China.


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