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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: December 2011

7 - The Yuan Dynasty


The rise of the Mongols under Chinggis Khan in the thirteenth century was a signal event in world history. Following the pattern of the preceding Kitans and Jurchens, the Mongols began by overthrowing the preexisting steppe political order, and then advanced south into China. Of course, in the case of the Mongols, they also reached across Eurasia and founded the largest land empire in history. In China the Mongols founded a Chinese-style dynastic government to administer and rule the Chinese population. This dynasty, the Yuan (1272–1368), like the preceding steppe dynasties, used a hybrid Chinese-steppe government system. The privileges and power of the ruling Mongols were paramount, though some Chinese did achieve a measure of authority. For the most part, the Mongol emperors did not attempt to change Chinese culture or society, preferring to leave local society alone.

The Yuan government was most concerned with extracting taxes and labor from the Chinese population. Part of the labor was military forces. The Mongol army was made up of different components formed by combining specific groups with specific military skills. Mongols themselves served exclusively as horse-archers. Infantry, naval, or siege units were drafted from subject populations with these skills. When the Yuan invaded Japan, for example, the navy was Chinese and Korean, and many of the troops were Jurchen. Very few Mongols took part. As a category, Yuan Dynasty martial arts include both Chinese and various steppe practices. Whereas in the Six Dynasties and Tang Dynasty the meaning and practice of these martial arts was more combined, in the Yuan Dynasty, Chinese and steppe martial arts were quite distinct.