Global vs sealed off empire – Mongols and the Ming dynasty

When teaching English in China, we also want to discover the country, which is incredibly interesting. In our Ancient China series, we explore Chinese history and its dynasties. This time we look into the time when China is for the first time completely conquered and occupied by foreign forces. The Mongols under Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty, which lasts almost 100 years before being kicked out by the Chinese Ming dynasty. The post is based on the HarvardX MOOC – Global China: From the Mongols to the Ming.

At the end of the 12th century, Genghis Khan unites all Mongol tribes and sets out to conquer most of the Eurasian landmass and with it most of the known world. The conquest of the Southern Song happens at one of the later stages but nothing could stop the Mongols at that time. After going through inner Asia, following the Silk route, they defeat another nomadic tribe, the Jurchen’s Jin dynasty, which occupied the North China plains.yuan dynasty

The grandson of Genghis, Kublai Khan finally defeats the Southern Song dynasty (1271-1279). It is the first time in history that all of China is conquered by a foreign force. There had been various foreign occupations in the North but the Mongols bring the entire territory of China under its control. The Mongol khaganate, which ruled over China is known as the Yuan dynasty. He made modern-day Beijing its capital of the first foreign-led dynasty of China. The khanate only survives in China for merely 100 years. In other parts of the Mongolian empire, it lasts much longer. The Mongols bring tremendous destruction to the countries they conquered. Europe will fall into the dark ages due to them. And although the Mongols also devasted China, especially the North, China recovers comparatively well. One reason for not descending into similar chaos is the educated Chinese elite. Throughout the Yuan dynasty, especially in the South, those elites, influenced by Neo-Confucianism, help to buffer the destruction brought upon by the Mongols.

And the South will, for the first time in Chinese history, see a Southern founded dynasty – the Ming.  China becomes part of a global empire through conquest by the Mongols. Though the Ming will cees to be part of this particular global empire when it pushes the Mongols out of China, it will see an unprecedented globally integrated economy and exploration as never before.

Making Northern China a hunting ground? – The Yuan dynasty


The Mongols ruled over most parts of the known world, though some parts stayed outside – such as Japan, North Africa, Western Europe and parts of South-East Asia. Mostly out of luck though, Western Europe got saved due to the Mongols voting a new Khan and Japan due to some hefty winds. The greatest empire the world has ever seen was hard to keep as a whole, centralized empire, so it was divided into four khanates: The empire of the Golden Horde, which is Russia lasts until 1502. The empire of the Islamic states Iran, Iraq, Georgia, and Syria lasts until 1411. The Chagatai empire of Central Asia, which is Mongolia and the Yuan empire in China, which only lasts till 1368.yuan dynasty

The khanate of China, or the Yuan dynasty, was certainly the richest part of the empire, or the world, to be honest. With the occupation of China, Mongolia lost importance and the khan moves its capital from Karakorum to ‘Dadu’, which is located in modern-day Beijing. The khans of the multi-ethnic global empire distrusted Chinese and its officials and relied heavily on administrators from Central Asia. Taxes were sold off, meaning every tax collector had to pay a set fee to the central court and could keep the surplus. Religious institutions, especially the Buddhist establishments, were given to Tibetan Buddhist to manage.

Mongols had a fixed social order within their empire. On top obviously the Mongols themselves. In the second group were people from Central Asia. Han Chinese were in the third group but this also included non-Chinese from the Khitans, Tanguts, and Jurchens. Within the last group were so-called “Southern barbarians” (Song dynasty). This social hierarchy reflected simply the order by which the Mongols had conquered these groups.

Steppe or palace that is the question for the Mongols


The life of the people living in the Chinese part of the Mongol empire lived quite a different life than the pastoral tribes which now ruled the empire. A sedentary life in palaces, agriculture, tax system and so forth versus the nomadic life of the Mongols. Two different views emerged, which divided the Mongols:yuan dynasty

The ‘sedentary Mongols’, who saw it beneficial to tax the population in order to finance their continued global expansion. They settled for Dadu/Beijing as capital and adapted to the new lifestyle and even partly assimilates to Chinese civilization, including learning the language, Chinese officials, and a civil government. In this context, it is often referred to as foreign occupiers ‘becoming Chinese’ (hanhua).

On the other side were the ‘steppe party’ who promoted the idea to annihilate the entire population of the Northern China plains to make place for hunting grounds and pasture land. They held dear to their nomadic lifestyle and the predominately use of armed force to govern and a readiness to return to the steppe.

And return to the steppe they did, sooner rather than later, when the Mongols were forced out of North China in 1360 by the Ming under the new ruler – Zhu Yuanshang or the Hongwu emperor. He took over a country devasted by the Mongols, epidemics, disarray and civil wars. Though the Mongols were not the most prolific state managers, their Yuan empire was nonetheless an incredible wealthy market, where many Europeans made enormous profits – such as Marco Polo. In his notes, he describes a Yuan China (or Cathay as it was known in English), which is far wealthier and more advanced than any other (European) place he had ever encountered.

A fresh start, continuation and or autocracy? – The Ming


Wming emperorith the aftermath of the Mongol occupation of China, the new Ming dynasty can be described with three different points of view. These sometimes appear contradictory but probably all of them can shed some light on understanding this period. Bear in mind that the Ming took over a country that wasn’t at its peak.

The first view is characterized by (re-)centralization of government and a restoration of Chinese culture. Central reforms at the beginning of the Ming strengthened civil authority over a predominately militaristic government. The ‘Censorate’, an important Chinese institution for the assessment of the whole of the government by other officials, was centralized and made accountable to the emperor itself.

The second line of interpretation of the early Ming is that it is merely a continuation of the Yuan dynasty with Chinese heads. The first Ming emperor was a man of the Yuan dynasty, he grew up and rose to the ranks during the Mongol occupation and most likely shared probably most values of the Mongol rulers. The early years of the Ming here are characterized by the establishment of a military nobility and the rule of thumb ‘military first’. The new emperor continued major institutions from the Yuan, such as the cruel and strict punishment (apparently he took violation of his rules personal), the use of Yuan paper money as well as strict control of social mobility.yuan empress

Conquests, mismanagement, epidemics and civil wars at the end of the Yuan, led to a loss of population from roughly 100M to around 65M. This burdened the early Ming dynasty with economic stagnation which wasn’t helped by an autocratic rule with repeated purging of officials and a general centralization of government. This third view of early Ming sees its emperor as standing above the law.

Social stability was the paramount aim of the Hongwe emperor, including forcing the population to repatriate and severely restricting the social mobility of the people. Those policies helped to stabilize the country for sure but it was also bad for business and merchants in general. It will take more than 100 years that the economy under the Ming would recover.

The greatest seafarer the world has ever seen and a unicorn


From a Western point of view, we are familiar with the famous seafarers of the new age of exploration such as Vasco da Gama, Columbus etc and a general view of China at the same time as a rather sealed off and inward-looking country. Not much is known on the other hand about the sea fleet of the Ming, which completely dwarfs any fleet of any European power at its time. It is enormous!

Between 1405 and 1433 the Ming set sail, going to South East Asia, South Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and Africa. Some of the fleets consisted of up to 317 ships and 27,000 men with the largest ships called ‘treasure ships’ of 400 feet length, 4,000 t weight when empty and 13,000 t when fully loaded. Those ships were 400 times bigger than the ships Columbus sailed to America with. 400 times!!! The man in charge was a Muslim from Yunnan province with the name of Zheng He, who is not even too well known in China itself.

ming dynasty seafarer

One of the main differences between Western and Chinese seafarers was, that Western explorers set out into the unknown chinese unicornto discover new places with the help of Chinese inventions. Chinese went to already known places to demonstrate the power of the Ming dynasty and military submission. During that time the land routes were also still blocked by the remnants of Mongol forces. But why wanted the Ming sail to Africa? It was by that time a tremendous journey. Because they found a unicorn! Confucians believe that the sight of a unicorn is a sign of the appearance of a sage in the world (which is obviously a good thing). Actual footage of the Chinese unicorn show what we know today as a giraffe.

In 1433, with the 7th and last fleet, the Chinese exploration stopped for good. The reason was not that the Chinese were looking inwards but rather austerity policy by the government. Those fleets were not cheap at all and defensive measures, such as the refurbishment of the Great Wall, seemed more pressing (to keep the Mongols at bay). But it also goes in hand with the official shutting down of private trade and the end of the trade with Japan.



Restriction of private and foreign trade by the government meant also the restriction of the influx of silver as a means of currency. Officially approved means of payment were meant to be paper money and copper coins. In order to pay for their expenses, the government tended to basically print more money, which obviously led to growing inflation. Paper money lost in value and copper coins were difficult to standardize and were rather heavy for its value. Consequently and despite the efforts of the government to restrict its use, silver increased in value and became the preferred exchange for trade, which the government could never completely suppress either.

During the Ming dynasty, the numbers of officials and people taking the official rose further. This despite the chances of taking up office was very, very low. Why people took up this chore nonetheless has, as always various reasons. One of the incentives was, that once you made it into an official post, your entire family was exempt from labor and tax obligations. Especially the tax exemption led to families amassing land. Farmers paid the official’s family a rent smaller than the tax obligation – a win-win for those involved. Only the state was losing revenue.

Foreign traders arrive

portuguese ming dynasty

In 1513 Portuguese arrived in Asian waters and were given permission to trade from Macau in 1542. Rather than trading between Asia and Portugal, those Portuguese merchants started to trade silver from Japan for Chinese goods. In 1571 Spanish arrived in Manila and with the silver from the American mines and they also were interested in Chinese goods.

The influx of silver from a global market meant that the Ming economy became increasingly connected with European countries, Japan and the Americas. Sea routes provided a cheaper and safer and faster way to trade than land routes. In exchange for silver, China provided the best quality to the best prices, such as textiles (e.g. silk), ceramics, furniture, porcelains and later tea. At some point, the British paid so much silver for Chinese tea that they impose a tax going to Massachusetts, which leads to the Boston tea party and the American revolution.

It is not just silver from the new world coming to China but also new crops arriving in China such as sweet potato, peanuts, pumpkins, and chili pepper! Up to the 16th century, no one in China ate spicily. Imagine Sichuan cuisine and hotpot without chilies!

The rise of the coastal areas of SE-China


The influx of silver from foreign trade sees also the emergence of a domestic market, especially in the South-East coastal regions. The still rural and agrarian economy started to specialize with cash crops, which in turn increases the dependency on market forces and risks. Cheaper water transport in South-East leads to increasing land prices and growing investment. Farmer became tenants and we see the establishment of the ‘Three Lords of the field system’. Basically, it means you have three different owners of the same plot of land (subsoil, topsoil, and farmer). Not sure if that was meant for tax evasion but it was for sure difficult to collect taxes from.

Increasing diversification of the labor force, global and domestic market growth meant further an increase in wealth for everyone. Of course, some profited from these new developments more than others. The southeast becomes the new center of wealth as well as culture. The North West as well as the West (Sichuan) is becoming comparatively poor and backward.

In the 16th century, the government eventually gives up on the fruitless attempts to restrict trade and travel. It basically adjusts to new realities and also wants its share of the new wealth. This step means that the money supply lays in the hands of merchants rather than the government. Merchants become wealthy and increasing their influence to even rival officials in status. But as education among merchants still holds of high regard, literates will also become wealthier. And eventually, the village system of the early Ming, where people are kept relatively poor in favor of stability, will be abandoned and replaced by a new system.

New tax system and open gates


The agrarian-based tax system from the early Ming, which collected any obligation in either kind or service had become redundant with the rise of a commercial economy. A reformed tax system collected in silver only. This new system, called ‘single whip’ was started from regions and was not a central implemented policy. It clearly reduced the cost and complexity of the tax system, expanded the tax base and let the government take advantage of an increasingly specialized labor force.

With the government eventually jumping on the silver bandwagon also meant that the economy, as well as the government, became dependent on the global silver market.

And with any dependency, problems arise. The late Ming was faced with a rather complex mix of issues. Regions that are not well integrated into trade and commerce, basically all but southeast China, fall behind. A poorer population meant fewer taxes for the government, which copes with decreasing revenue in making soldiers and officials redundant. Those well trained and now dormant soldiers and officials became the cornerstones of rebellions which started in the North-West and sweep throughout China. To quell the rebels the government needed more money/taxes. At this time Japan closes its trade with the outside world and the Spanish withdrew its silver from Manila. At the northern borders, the former Jurchens, now called Manchus, risen in power. Around 1644 a Ming general, invites a well-organized Manchu army through the gates of the Great Wall of China, to help the government against the rebels. Unsurprisingly this will spell the end of the Ming.

Cultural changes and erotic novels


Rich merchants with a keen interest in education paid not just officials to erotic novel chinagain political influence but also literati’s, people who went through the examination system, to obtain education themselves as well as for writing literature for the newly emerged rich. Literature styles changed from mainly teaching moral values in society and styled after antiquity to a more entertaining form to reflect feelings and stressing personal experience, such as novels, short stories, self-help books etc.

Those new fictional books about real lives were also written for a more diverse audience: husbands and wives, concubines, men, and women.

Classic books before were written in a highly educated and demanding literati language, which was rather difficult to comprehend for anyone not taught in classic literature. A new, more entertaining literature meant also the creation of a new written language, stylized at oral language and utilitarianism. During that time, the first pornographic novel emerged about the life of a rich merchant and its concubines: ‘The plum flowers in a golden vase’ or ‘the golden lotus’.

New cultural changes meant also a new role for women. More women than ever become writers for example. On the other hand, a rather grueling fashion starts, which looks a bit diametral to the wider inclusion of women: foot binding. It will only be falling out of fashion long after the Ming has disappeared.

So, that was part 5 of our blog series – Ancient China: The Yuan and Ming dynasty – let us know what you think in the comment section!

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