Thursday, December 14, 2023

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 6: The Mongols before the Yuan Dynasty of 1279-1368

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5 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economics Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff continues his series on China, this time in three parts focusing on the Mongols who invaded the Middle Kingdom and established the Yuan Dynasty.

The Mongol Empire before the invasion of Song China

In the last segment we discussed the Song Dynasty (960-1127) that was eventually pushed out of northern China by Jurchen Manchurians from the north, and the later Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) that was overrun by the Mongols who had also conquered the Jurchens just 45 years earlier.

Hence 1279 marks the official start of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) when all of China was ruled by the Mongols.


The Yuan Dynasty was the first instance of China being completely conquered and governed by a non-Chinese invading people, but not the last.

However before we get into the details of the Yuan it’s helpful to briefly discuss the Mongols themselves, particularly in their runup to the conquest of China.

At the start of the 13th century China viewed the Mongols as just another “barbarian” horde to the north, a tribal people who lived in a relatively small area that included part of modern-day northern Mongolia and Lake Baikal in southern Siberia.

The infamous Genghis Khan (1162-1227) unified the multiple squabbling Mongol tribes in 1206, and from there armies of Mongol horsemen expanded outwards, conquering vast—albeit sparsely populated—areas of central Asia. At the time of Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongols were warring on northern China (which by that time was ruled by the Jurchen Manchurians) and the empire already stretched from modern-day North Korea to the Caspian Sea—an annexation of several million square miles in just 21 years.

Genghis Khan’s heir Ogodei Khan completed the conquest of northern China and then turned his sights on invading the Southern Song Dynasty, dying before the lengthy conquest was completed. It was Genghis’ grandson Kublai who would finish the job, requiring another nineteen years after inheriting the throne of Great Khan in 1260.

By the time the Southern Song finally fell in 1279, the four corners of Kublai Khan’s empire stretched from northern Vietnam and Burma in the southeast, all of Korea and the Sea of Okhotsk coastline in the northeast, Iraq and eastern Turkey in the southwest, and eastern Poland, the Baltics, and extreme southern Finland in the northwest (with Moscow serving as a vassal state, something Vladimir Putin recently commented on).

It was and remains the greatest contiguous geographic empire in world history.

Yet despite the Mongols’ enormous empire—if one considers the limited population, landscape, wealth, and culture of their territory—the conquest of Southern China and the Southern Song would serve as the crown jewel of their domains, hence Kublai’s obsession with subduing all of China.

But not before attempting to invade Japan first.


Cautious Rockers may already be familiar with the story of Kublai Khan’s attempted invasions of the Japanese islands since the tale is often integrated into World War II history and Imperial Japan’s kamikaze suicide pilots.

In the late 1260’s Kublai Khan sent several emissary missions to Japan requesting friendly albeit unequal relations that the Japanese rejected, eventually even denying permission for Mongol diplomats to set foot on their shores. Incensed by Japanese intransigence, Kublai Khan built an invasion fleet believed to have consisted of several hundred ships and perhaps 30,000 warriors which departed Mongol Korea in 1274. 

Japanese samurai, who were greatly outnumbered and negligibly prepared for a large invasion, fought ferociously on the landing beaches of the southernmost islands, denying the Mongols a secure beachhead to Kyushu and sending them back to their ships every night to rest and regroup.

After probing several more landing areas and encountering similarly fierce resistance Mongol losses began to accumulate and the fleet retreated back to Korea. The attempted invasion was a failure.

Hearing of his defeat Kublai Khan sent envoys again, giving Japan one last chance to surrender, but the emissaries were beheaded. Thus Kublai committed to try again with a much larger invasion force, but first he needed to concentrate on his final push to finish off the Southern Song dynasty.

Having finally defeated Song forces five years later (1279), Kublai shifted his focus back to Japan a full seven years after his first invasion attempt, building an even larger navy composed of two fleets, one in Korea and one in the Yangtze delta region of the China coast. Best estimates tally 4,000 ships with 140,000 warriors or roughly five times the size of the 1274 invasion. Japan also added samurai warriors but remained greatly outnumbered.

The two Mongol fleets set sail in 1281 to complete unfinished business, departing in May to avoid the typhoon season.

Working against Kublai’s plans was the pause between invasions itself. The 1274 attempted invasion having alerted them to the Mongols’ plans, the Japanese used the seven year delay to prepare for another invasion, building defensive walls on the perimeters of key strategic southern beaches. The Japanese also prepared small raiding boats for samurai to attack larger, slower Mongol ships, hoping to set them afire or even board them.

Due to lack of coordination between the two Mongol fleets, the Korean fleet arrived first and unsuccessfully attempted to invade and occupy several key islands and Kyushu itself. The fleet then retreated, finally rendezvousing with the Chinese fleet upon which the combined fleets returned to the invasion theater. However this delay pushed the operation into typhoon season.

As the combined Mongol fleets attempted to invade Japan, the new samurai defenses proved formidable. Archers’ arrows fired from behind defensive island perimeter walls frustrated Mongol plans to establish beachheads, sending them back to their ships day after day. Then small, fast samurai craft harassed the Mongol fleet stationed offshore, complicating their invasion plans and dragging out the operation.

After several weeks of bloody stalemate on both land and sea an enormous typhoon entered the area. The samurai and their small boats had friendly islands they could retreat to, but the Mongols were largely still anchored in harbor or out at sea and the typhoon devastated their fleet. Enormous waves sent anchored ships crashing into one another or flung them upon rocky shores where they were shattered. Countless Mongol soldiers drowned and the Japanese samurai celebrated the sight of their invaders’ ships being sent to the bottom, watching from ashore and cheering “kamikaze!” or “divine wind.”

What remained of the Mongol fleet retreated back to the continent and whatever surviving Mongols washed ashore were quickly executed by their samurai captors.

Kublai Khan never attempted to invade Japan again, and as most war history students already know the Imperial Japanese government resurrected the kamikaze cult in an attempt to halt the relentless advance of the American navy during World War II. Although typhoons twice struck American Pacific fleets in 1944 and 1945, damage was limited and did effectively nothing to forestall Japan's defeat.

The Japanese government also attempted to create their own divine wind, the suicide kamikaze pilots who, if they weren’t shot down first, attempted to fly their bomb and fuel-laden planes into American ships.

While the 20th century kamikazes inflicted more damage on the U.S. fleet than the two typhoons, and instilled a great deal of fear into American sailors, their impact on the war was also minimal. Allied forces still successfully invaded the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, blockaded the home islands while firebombing Japanese cities, and the imperial government was ultimately forced to surrender after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the next installment we'll dive into the Yuan Dynasty itself.

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