Chinese Studies Yuan Dynasty
by
David Robinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0025

Introduction

The Yuan dynasty sits awkwardly in Eurasian history. The dynastic name, Yuan, is Chinese, as is the practice of naming dynastic houses not by the leading family’s surname but by the place where the regime began or, as was the case with the Yuan, a term that carried auspicious meaning. In the case of East Asia, dynasty also calls to mind a package of political institutions and conventions (including a dominant role for the emperor; a highly articulated bureaucracy; written law codes regulating political, commercial, and family life; a court with extensive and minutely described rituals; a capital with a grand palace) and a well-developed political philosophy that explained the place of the Son of Heaven in the cosmos, and the interaction among the realms of man, nature, social life, and much more. Thus, one approach to the Yuan period has been to view it in the longer span of Chinese history. Yet, the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were Mongol conquerors whose family, the Chinggisids (descendants of Chinggis khan), subjugated much of Eurasia. Although Mongols had conquered much of northern China in the mid-13th century, the Yuan dynasty was not established until 1271. It is generally used to describe China under Mongol rule, but equating the Yuan dynasty with China is both factually inaccurate and highly misleading because Mongolian (or, more broadly, steppe) traditions of rulership and governance differed importantly from those of earlier and later Chinese dynasties. Much recent Japanese scholarship thus uses the term “Great Yuan ulus” (Mongolian for nation) rather than dynasty to highlight such differences.

Introductory Works

Smith and Von Glahn 2003 considers the continuities of the Yuan period with the rest of Chinese history, with particular attention paid to the preceding Song period. Kim Ho-dong (Kim 2006, Kim 2009) has argued that the Great Yuan (da yuan 大元) actually referred to the entire Mongolian Empire but has mistakenly come to be understood as the territory governed by Khubilai and his descendants.

  • Kim Ho-dong 金浩東. “Mong’gol che’guk kwa Tae Wŏn” (몽골帝國과 大元). Yŏksa hakpo 歴史學報 192 (2006): 221–253.

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    Using Chinese, Persian, and European sources, Kim reexamines the now-common notion of four independent khanates and argues that contemporaries understood Great Yuan to mean the entire Mongol Empire, not just China and its environs.

  • Kim, Ho-dong 金浩東. “The Unity of the Mongol Empire and Continental Exchanges over Eurasia.Journal of Central Eurasian Studies 1 (2009): 15–42.

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    Kim reviews the notion of the Pax Mongolica and its implications for diplomatic and commercial travel across Mongolian territories during the 13th and 14th centuries. He also briefly articulates his argument that Great Yuan referred to the empire.

  • Smith, Paul J., and Richard Von Glahn, eds. The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History. Harvard East Asian Monograph 221. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003.

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    The Yuan has often fallen between the cracks of two far-better-studied periods (the Tang-Song and the Ming-Qing, c. 7th to 13th centuries and 1550–1900, respectively). This important collection of eleven essays both explores the Yuan’s links to these earlier and later periods and, more provocatively, argues that the early 12th to early 15th centuries constituted a distinct historical epoch, the “Song-Yuan-Ming transition.”

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