Wednesday, December 20, 2023

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 7: The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Kublai Khan and Marco Polo

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff marches on through Chinese history, this time posting the middle entry of his trilogy on the Mongol Yuan dynasty.

Marco Polo: Venetian merchant, Yuan official,
and confidant to Kublai Khan
In the previous installment we discussed how Genghis Khan died over half a century before the final Mongol conquest of China and his grandson Kublai Khan established the Yuan dynasty as its first emperor.

The short-lived Yuan dynasty is largely the story of Kublai Khan’s reign, for after his death (1294) the throne was occupied by a string of short-lived and unremarkable emperors. By the 1330’s the Black Death was spreading throughout China, already sowing the seeds of the Yuan’s eventual downfall. Hence today we’ll focus mostly on Kublai Khan’s time in power.

Popular media portray the Mongols as mindless barbarians (has anyone ever seen the Genghis Khan in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?”) and indeed they were quite ruthless towards those who resisted their rule. John Gabris, one of Cautious Optimism Nation’s most esteemed citizens, even commented on this last week, asking for more information on how the Mongols paid for their conquests of faraway lands.

While the Correspondent doesn’t have many details about Mongol compensation and benefit packages, it is significant to point out their methods of conquest were absolutely brutal. Cities that surrendered were generally treated well—by Mongol standards—but those who chose to fight or rebel were slaughtered mercilessly. Every living thing in cities—women and children, horses, even cats and dogs—was massacred to send a clear message to prospective next targets: it would be better for you to lay down your arms and surrender. Modern day Iraq still regards conquering Mongols as the 13th century version of Nazis for their 1258 siege and massacre of Baghdad.

Note: similar tactics were used by Chinese communist rebels against Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist forces during the 1945-1949 civil war, laying five-month siege to the Manchurian city of Changchun and deliberately starving 150,000 civilians to death. The communists made sure to leave a few survivors who could relay the horrors to neighboring cities which then surrendered immediately, allowing Mao Zedong’s forces to take over without a fight.

Today literature on the Changchun siege and famine is censored by the Chinese government.

But back to the ruthlessness and barbarity of Mongol conquerors… Once the Yuan dynasty was established Mongol administration of China became surprisingly more restrained, even more civilized than their legalist Song dynasty predecessors.

The early Yuan was also marked by expansion of foreign trade, a moderation of torture and capital punishment, and Kublai Khan himself was an intellectually curious leader who leveraged both knowledge and people from faraway kingdoms to manage his empire. He also successfully transformed the occupying Mongols from tribes of nomadic raiders to sedentary administrators of a large country.


After ascending as Great Khan in 1260 Kublai moved his capital south from Karakorum in Mongolia to Shangdu (sometimes called “Xanadu”) near the modern-day Chinese border. Once it became clear he would soon rule large numbers of Chinese Kublai moved again in 1270 to the old Jin capital of Zhongdu, renaming it Khanbaliq (or “city of the emperor” in Mongol).

150 years later, long after the Yuan was overthrown, the Chinese Ming dynasty emperor Yongle would rename the city “Beijing” which means “northern capital” in mandarin.

Kublai’s decision to move his capital deeper into China was guided by a more comprehensive strategy, for he knew the Mongols not only had no experience governing what was the largest and most complex economy on earth, but they were also greatly outnumbered by their Chinese subjects. Therefore Kublai adopted a program of sinicization, or becoming more Chinese to gain acceptance from the ethnic Han people.

Kublai conferred a Chinese name to his dynasty (the “Da Yuan” or “great origination”), embraced Confucian principles and Buddhist religion while allowing religious freedom to thrive, and permitted Chinese to serve in lower government positions. In a nutshell Kublai largely allowed Chinese daily life to go on as usual.

However there were some changes. Han Chinese were not allowed to serve at the highest state levels, the new social order placing Mongols and foreigners in higher strata than their conquered subjects.

Knowing good and well the new Mongol rulers were not exactly popular with the locals Kublai relied heavily on non-Chinese advisors, preferring to import them from other parts of his vast empire. Employing a strategy that would be mimicked by a later dynasty of foreign invaders (the Qing Dynasty: 1644-1912) Kublai was ever-suspicious of ethnic Chinese officials who he believed would attempt to undermine and eventually expel the Mongols if granted too much power. Instead Islamic scholars from Central Asia were often appointed alongside Mongols to administer the state, and Kublai eagerly utilized what few Europeans he could find whenever available.

In fact Kublai was extremely curious about the cultures, sciences, technologies, and histories of faraway kingdoms, and his affinity for recruiting outsiders led to a remarkable relationship with Italian merchant Marco Polo which we’ll devote a last few paragraphs to in a moment.

Mongol law was also more restrained than that of the previous Song dynasty. Under Kublai Khan executions fell dramatically and torture was almost (but not quite completely) abolished. In lieu of arbitrary executions Mongol law declared government officials must present evidence before handing down capital sentences. It wasn’t exactly a template for constitutional U.S. civil liberties, but it was very civilized for 13th century Asia.

Ultimately Chinese civilization flourished in the early Yuan. Kublai ordered the repair and restoration of key infrastructure that had dilapidated under Song dynasty hyperinflation and neglect. Chinese irrigation, agriculture, and seafaring improved markedly and Kublai encouraged Silk Road trade with other regions of his empire and western Europe. The first Gutenberg Bible printing press is believed to have originated from movable type printing imported from China.


Marco Polo’s story would require a series of articles in and of itself, but at minimum he deserves a short mention here.

Marco arrived in Khanbaliq with his Venetian merchant father and uncle in 1275. During their first meeting with Kublai the Great Khan took an instant liking to the young Italian whom he judged as intelligent and capable. Eventually Kublai appointed Marco Polo as a mid-level government official, a position he held for many years, traveling extensively as a diplomatic emissary and possibly tax collector, but also gathering information about the far reaches of the empire which he relayed back to Kublai personally. Once again, Kublai distrusted ethnic Chinese who he believed were determined to overthrow the Yuan and likely to manipulate or lie to him.

Marco Polo remained in China in the service of Kublai Khan for seventeen years. During that time he was awestruck by the riches, the exoticism, and the enormous scale of the Great Khan’s dominion (compared to the small, bickering European states of that time) and kept a journal. Keeping in mind how limited intercontinental travel was for everyday people in 1275, Macro Polo’s adventure was a unique epic for an entire era in history.

When Polo returned to Italy in 1295 he was arrested by the city-state of Genoa which was at war with Venice. Serving time in a Genoese prison, Polo recounted details of the Yuan to his cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who luckily turned out to be a romance writer. Details of his more than two decades in Asia were published in “Book of the Marvels of the World” or “The Travels of Marco Polo” which, despite copies having to be painstakingly handwritten, became the 1300’s equivalent of a blockbuster best seller. Not only were Europeans fascinated by detailed accounts of the remote, vast Chinese kingdom but also drawn to the lurid details of Asian sexual mores—like reading tabloids or gossiping with one’s hairdresser during the puritanical repression of the late Middle Ages

Polo was released from prison in 1299 and eventually became a wealthy merchant. Despite selling countless copies, both Marco Polo’s notes and da Pisa’s translations contained a handful of errors and there was public skepticism about his story. Some scholars believed he had never even visited China and simply written from stories he had heard while in Persia. On his deathbed Polo was asked repeatedly to retract much of what he had written to which he replied “I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.”

As centuries passed after Polo’s death, more and more of his book was authenticated by growing numbers of western travelers to China. His description of star patterns in the South China Sea sky was confirmed by European sailors, and historians who pored over Chinese annals of the by-then defunct Yuan dynasty discovered meticulous records and dates of events that matched many of Polo’s memoirs. Today there is little doubt that Marco Polo did, in fact, visit China for seventeen years and worked in the service of Kublai Khan’s government although a few scholars maintain he exaggerated his role within the dynasty.

ps. The Correspondent recently stumbled across a Netflix series on Marco Polo’s service to Kublai Khan, aptly named “Marco Polo.” While the first two or three episodes were somewhat interesting it didn’t take long to realize the series is historical fiction with heavy emphasis on the word “fiction,” sometimes “wildly outlandish fiction,” and he would not recommend it to anyone looking for an accurate account of Polo’s experiences in China.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.