The legacy of the Yuan Dynasty

Today I heard Morris Rossabi of Queens College give a lecture titled “Mongol Influences on China.” The lecture was actually more about the extent to which the Yuan Dynasty impacted the Ming Dynasty, specifically. Traditional scholarship usually put forward a decidedly negative image of the Mongols. They are claimed to have retarded the societal and cultural progress of Russia, Iran, and China through irreparable damage caused by their great military campaigns. They have had such an incredible impact, as Rossabi said, that some scholars have “vulgarized” them to the point where Chinggis Khan in named a pioneer of democracy, the Mongols developers of international law and religious tolerance, and even the “making of the modern age.”

In fact, the Mongols really are not to blame for the failures of these societies. All of these claims, whether they mean well or deflect blame, or forward a modern political agenda, they oversimplify and neglect many important parts of the Mongol’s legacy, while usually overemphasizing one person’s achievements, namely Chinggis Khan. This can be seen clearly in the Mongol impact on China. The fifth great Khan, Kubilai, established the Yuan Dynasty around 1271, which gave way to the Ming Dynasty when it collapsed in 1368, leaving behind a lasting legacy of governance.

The legacy of the Yuan can be seen in many ways, especially in the military and governance of the Ming. The decimal system for organizing divisions of the military was directly inherited from the Mongols, as was the same system of establishing frontier bases on the outskirts of the empire. Finally, princes were assigned to provinces much in the way that rulers were allowed to administer their regions under Kubilai. Even the imperial guard was clad in Mongol uniform and engaged in “Mongol” activities such as mastering horse riding and fighting/hunting on horseback.

These rulers of various provinces of China were not always loyal to Kubilai. He had developed a complex network of eyes and ears to deliver information on the loyalty of these rulers, known as the censorate. This was crucial to effective governance of the empire and the Ming maintained this same system to report any treasonous sentiment.

In addition to these two obvious ways, the Ming retained some other important traditions left by the Mongols. Clothing was not used to denote status; the Ming adopted more or less egalitarian court practices. Finally, interest in other areas like astronomy and medicine continued after the Mongols had departed.

Rossabi concluded by reviewing five of the most important things the Mongols left behind: Mongolians to serve in the military and courts, military organization and traditions, the censorate, continued interest in astronomy and medicine, and finally a tolerant religious policy with tendencies towards Buddhism. Dr. Paul Goldin also made a comment about policies implemented by the Ming being seen as a reaction to occupation by Mongols as opposed to emulation of the Mongol rulers. Rossabi agreed that many Ming policies would fall under both emulation and reaction to the previous Mongol leadership. All in all, Rossabi concluded that although the Mongols were very influential and the Yuan Dynasty left much for the Ming Dynasty, scholars cannot be too careful in attributing certain successes to the Mongols. It would have been fun to hear him talk about John Wayne in The Conqueror as part of the Mongol legacy. Oh well.

The presentation was at 4:30PM in Room 200 of College Hall at the University of Pennsylvania.

F. Miller SAS ‘13