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Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

The Bailin Temple Pagoda of Zhaoxian County, Hebei Province, built in 1330 during the Yuan Dynasty. The Front Building in the Temple of Mount Tai in Wanrong (Xiedian Town), Yuncheng, Shanxi Province (Yuan Dynasty) The Main Building in the Temple of Mount Tai in Wanrong (Xiedian Town), Yuncheng, Shanxi Province (Yuan~Ming Dynasties)
Architecture of the Yuan Dynasty(By Jiang Dongcheng)

Section I Historical Context and General Situation of Architecture

The Yuan dynasty realized an unprecedented unification of the nationality, putting an end to the fragmentation situation of the country resulted from rivalry among the independent principalities, Since the unification was resulted from war, depredation and slaughter of Mongolian armies brought immense disasters for nationalities ruled by them, so social production was not recovered until the policy of facilitating agriculture and silkworm breeding was employed by Yuan Shizu (the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty).

The unprecedented extensive nationality amalgamation in culture and dwelling existed in the Yuan dynasty dramatically promoted exchange in all aspects such as economy and culture etc., resulting in a prosperous view of architectural culture that is rarely seen in the history of China.

Styles of the Yuan dynasty buildings accepted the tradition of the Song and Jin dynasties and influenced development of architecture of the Ming and Qing dynasty. As an immense-sized and complete-planned city, the Yuandadu city was a new capital city built in the “street-lane system”. Because of respects for Tibetan Buddhism, buildings of Lamaism and exchange of Han and Tibetan architecture were also improved. In addition, buildings of Islamism existed successively in Dudu city, Xinjiang and the southeast regions, with the Chinese style of Islamism buildings beginning to be seen then.

Distinguishing features of the Yuan dynasty architecture are divided into following aspects:

(1) City

In the Yuan dynasty, a number of Chinese cities planed in organizational systems existed and thrived, mainly located in the north China, middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Hence, lots of commercial cities existed. For example, the large capital called Hanbali was not only the center of power but also the world-famous center of trade.

(2) Palace buildings

Palace buildings of the Yuan dynasty mainly include the Mongolian capital Helin palace, Shangdu Kaiping palace and Dadu yanjing palace.

The Helin palace was built by Mongolian rulers at their origin with multiple functions. Its design in layout, configuration and construction materials introduced the culture of the Han nationality while maintaining and developing habitude of the Mongolian.

Shangdu palace was favorable in contact with Helin and controlling regions of the Han nationality. With both administrative and vacation functions, on one hand, the entrance space in front of the palace was formally planned in central axial symmetry. On the other hand, many temples and pavilions were randomly configured in the palace city.

The imperial palace (i.e. the palace city) was located in the east of Yuan Dadu, with four portals towards east, west, south and north, divided into the front part and the rear part by the Donghuamen portal and Xihuamen portal. Two groups of palace yards mainly made up of “工”-shaped temples were set up on the central axis. The Daming Temple was the primary one in the front palace, and the Yanchun Pavilion was the primary one in the rear palace. A second square was set up between the front portals of the palace city and the imperial city, strengthening the depth classification of the entrance space in front of the palace and its stateliness. Architecture of the Dudu Palace of the Yuan dynasty is regarded as an important section in system development of Chinese palace architecture.

(3) Altars, temples and religious buildings

In the ninth year of Dade reign (1305), emperor Chengzong built Tiantan Altar in the south suburb of Dadu city, beginning to offer sacrifice for heaven, sun, moon and stars. The Sheji Altar of the Yuan dynasty was built in the 30th year of the Zhiyuan reign (1293), located in the south region inside the Heyi Portal of Dadu city, covering an area of 40 mu. In addition, the Taisui Altar, Fengyunleiyu Altar and Yuezhenhaidu Temple were all built as sites for sacrificing in the Yuan dynasty.

The imperial ancestral temple of the Yuan dynasty was located inside the Qihua Portal in northeast of the Dadu palace. The temple employed a layout in which the formal palace was located in the front and the resting palace was in the rear. The formal palace was 7 bay in length and 5 bay in width, divided into 7 rooms as same as the ancestral temple specification of the Jin dynasty. Outside the ancestral temple, there were rampart, four-corner houses and guarding turrets surrounded. There were three portals in east, south and west, with two well booths outside the Nanshen Portal.

Section I Historical Context and General Situation of Architecture(2)

Architecure of Tibetan Buddhism developed rapidly not only in Tibet but also in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Mongolian regions, Central China and part of the Himalayan regions. Some temples of Tibetan Buddhism existed in the Dadu city. Resulted from the containing attitude of the Yuan regime, architecture of Taoism, Islam and Christinism were also developed considerably in the Yuan dynasty.

(4) Residence

Residence of the Yuan dynasty developed to an intermediary section of transition from the Song and Jin dynasties to the Ming and Qing dynasties, featuring sparseness and openness in residential specification. Residential buildings of literati in the Yuan dynasty focused much on environment, substantially featuring combination of nature and the building together, while buildings of minor nationalities of the Yuan dynasty different from that of Han.

Houyingfang residence relic in Beijing is a typical large-size residential building located in the region of Han in the Yuan dynasty. The buildings were divided into three lines, i.e. east, central and west line. The principal house of the main yard in the central line is 3 bay in length, with a windowed veranda in front, two companied houses at two sides, as well as east and west wing-room.

(5) Gardens

Mongolian rulers built gardens in their capital city. The imperial gardens of the Yuan Dadu mainly located in the west and north of the capital, including the Yuyuan Imperial Garden in the north of the palace, Taiyechi Lake in the west and the Xiqianyuan Garden in the west of Longfu Palace. The Yuyuan Imperial Garden featured mainly flowers and trees, and water-mills were configured to introduce water of the Taiyechi Lake to irrigate flowers and trees. Garden area of the Taiyechi Lake was based on the Wanning Palace, with the Qionghua Islet, Yuan Islet and Xishan Islet in the water as extension of the traditional idea of fantasy mountain and islands. There was a 50 chi (a unit of length) hill in the garden as the main scene which was piled up with strange rock combined with plants.

There were few records on private gardens of the Yuan dynasty, showing a paused state of private garden development. The owners were often profound in literary accomplishments. The aesthetic tastes of scholar-bureaucrats showed by scenes, designs and naming of these private gardens were approximately succession of gardens of the Song dynasty. The relatively large-sized private gardens mostly featured great designs in flowers, bamboo, water, stone and pavilions.

Additionally, besides private gardens, there were some public gardens in the Yuan dynasty, e.g. Wanchun Garden on the west bank of Haizi Lake in Dadu.

(6) Boom of architectural masters and masterpieces

Early at the foundation of the Yuan reign, a Palace Department was established in charge of building palaces,and a construction code – Jing Shi Da Dian – which employed a system as Ying Zao Fa Shi (Construction Specification) of the Song dynasty was issued by the government. Famous building maters in the Yuan dynasty included:

1. Ye Hei Die Er: Arab. The actual director in charge of building palaces of Yanjing early in the Yuan dynasty. He himself was in charge of directing constructional engineering of palaces, official buildings, ancestral temples, gardens, guard dormitories and resident buildings of officials in Dadu.

2. Yang Qiong (? – 1288): born in Quyang county of Baoding Lu. He was in charge of stone work in palace construction in Shi Zu reign of the Yuan dynasty. He participated in construction engineering of Kai Ping and Yanjing. In 9th year of Zhiyuan reign (1272), he was in charge of building the principal temple (Xiangge Pavilion, Yanchunge Pavilion) of the Dadu palace. In the 13th year of Zhiyuan reign (1276), he was in charge of building the Zhou Bridge in front of the Chongtian Portal on the central axis of the palace, and he was awarded the title of Wulüe General guarding Dadu and Shaofu Jian.

3. A Ni Ge (1245 – 1306): a Nepalese craftman who brought the crafts of building Indian white towers and the Buddhist figures to China. His main architectural works include: three Buddhist towers, nine large temples, two ancestral temples and a Taoist temple, among which the white tower in Wanan Temple (rename as Miaoying Temple) built in the 8th year of Zhiyuan reign (1271) in Dadu is the most famous one as the representative work of Lama towers in the Yuan dynasty.

4. Liu Binzhong (1216 – 1274): In 6th year of Xizong reign (1256), with the order of Kublai Khan, he was in charge of building Kaiping city, later the Yuan Shangdu. In the 4th year of Zhiyuan reign (1267),he was again in charge of building Yanjing city, later the Dadu city.
Special thanks to OpenCourseWare-
The Yuan Dynasty (pinyin: Yuáncháo; Mongolian: Dai Ön Yeke Mongghul Ulus), lasting officially from 1271 to 1368, followed the Song Dynasty and preceded the Ming Dynasty in the historiography of China. The dynasty was established by ethnic Mongols, and it had nominal control over the entire Mongol Empire (stretching from Eastern Europe to the fertile crescent to Russia); however, the Mongol rulers in Asia were only interested in China. Later successors did not even attempt to stake claim over the Khakhan title and saw themselves as Emperor of China.

Birth of the Yuan

Founding an Empire

Temüjin, later to be more prominently known as Genghis Khan, was officially the first in the line of Yuan Dynasty emperors. He was the son of Yesügei, the tribal chief of the Kiyad — a tribe in fragmented Mongolia under nominal control of the Jin Dynasty at the time. His father was killed in his early life by a rival tribe, leaving him the heir. This led to bitterness on the part of Senggum, Wang's former heir, who planned to assassinate Temüjin. Temüjin learned of Senggum's intentions however, and a large civil war broke out among the Mongols. Eventually Temüjin defeated Senggum and succeeded to the title of Wang Khan. Temüjin created a written code of laws for the Mongols called Yassa, and he demanded it to be followed very strictly.

Temüjin followed with attacks on other neighboring tribes, which further increased his power. By combining diplomacy, organization, military ability, and brutality, Temüjin finally managed to unite the tribes into the single nation, a monumental feat for the Mongols, who had a long history of internecine dispute. In 1206 Temüjin successfully united the formerly fragmented tribes of what is now Mongolia. At a Khurultai (a council of Mongol chiefs), he was named the "Genghis Khan", or the "Universal Ruler". The birth of Mongolia marked the start of what would become the largest continuous empire in history, ruling large parts of Asia, the Middle East and parts of Europe, over the following two centuries. While his empire extended in all directions, Genghis Khan’s main interest was always with China, specifically Western Xia, Jin Dynasty and southern Song Dynasty.

Northern Conquest
At the time of the Khuriltai, Genghis was involved in a dispute with Western Xia — which eventually became the first of his wars of conquest. Despite problems in taking well defended Western Xia cities, he substantially reduced the Western Xia dominion by 1209, when peace with Western Xia was made. He was acknowledged by their emperor as overlord. This marks the first in a line of successes in defeating all the kingdoms and dynasties in China which wasn't complete until Kublai Khan's rule. A major goal of Genghis was the conquest of the Jin Dynasty, allowing the Mongols to avenge earlier defeats, gain the riches of northern China and mostly to establish the Mongols as a major power among the Chinese world order. He declared war in 1211, and at first the pattern of operations against the Jin Dynasty was the same as it had been against Western Xia. The Mongols were victorious in the field, but they were frustrated in their efforts to take major cities. In his typically logical and determined fashion, Genghis and his highly developed staff studied the problems of the assault of fortifications. With the help of Chinese engineers, they gradually developed the techniques to take down fortifications. Islamic engineers joined later and especially contributed counterweight trebuchets, "Muslim phao", which had a maximum range of 300 metres compared to 150 metres of the ancient Chinese predecessor. It played a significant role in taking the Chinese strongholds and was as well used against infantry units on battlefield. This eventually would make troops under the Mongols some of the most accomplished and most successful besiegers in the history of warfare.

As a result of a number of overwhelming victories in the field and a few successes in the capture of fortifications deep within China, Genghis had conquered and had consolidated Jin territory as far south as the Great Wall by 1213. He then advanced with three armies into the heart of Jin territory, between the Great Wall and the Huang He. He defeated the Jin forces, devastated northern China, captured numerous cities, and in 1215 besieged, captured, and sacked the Jin capital of Yanjing (later known as Beijing). The Jin emperor, Xuan Zong, however, did not surrender, but removed his capital to Kaifeng. There his successors finally were defeated, but not until 1234.

The vassal emperor of Western Xia had refused to take part in the war against the peoples of the Khwarizm, and Genghis had vowed punishment. While he was in Central Asia, Western Xia and Jin had formed an alliance against the Mongols. After rest and a reorganization of his armies, Genghis prepared for war against his biggest foes. By this time, advancing years had led Genghis to prepare for the future and to assure an orderly succession among his descendants. He selected his third son Ogedei as his successor and established the method of selection of subsequent khans, specifying that they should come from his direct descendants. Meanwhile, he studied intelligence reports from Western Xia and Jin and readied a force of 180,000 troops for a new campaign.

Aspirations to the Mandate of Heaven
In 1226, Genghis Khan attacked the Tanguts (Western Xia) on the pretext that the Tanguts received the Mongols' enemies. Over the next year he took the cities Heisui, Ganzhou, Suzhou, and Xiliang-fu — the Western Xia were finally defeated near Helanshan Mountain. He soon after took Tangut city of Ling-zhou and the Yellow River — defeating the Tangut relief army. In 1227, Genghis Khan attacked the Tanguts' capital, and in February, he took Lintiao-fu. In March, he took Xining prefecture and Xindu-fu. In April, he took Deshun prefecture. At Deshun, the Western Xia General Ma Jianlong resisted the Mongols for days and personally led charges against them outside of the city gate. Ma Jianlong later died of arrow shots. On his deathbed in 1227, Genghis Khan outlined to his youngest son, Tolui, the plans that later would be used by his successors to complete the destruction of the Western Xia, Jin Dynasty and Southern Song Dynasty. The new Western Xia emperor, during Mongol attack, surrendered. The Tanguts officially surrendered in 1227, after being in existence for 190 years, from 1038 to 1227. The Mongols killed the Tangut emperor and his royal family members.

During the reign of Ögedei Khan, the Mongols completed the destruction of the Jin (in 1234), coming into contact and conflict, during this time, with the Southern Song. In 1235, under the khan's direct generalship, the Mongols began a war of conquest that would not end for forty-five years.

After a series of campaigns from 1231 to 1259, Mongol armies vassalized Korea. The Mongols established permanent control of Persia proper (commanded by Chormagan) and, most notably, expanded westwards under the command of Batu Khan to subdue the Russian steppe. Their western conquests included almost all of Russia (save Novgorod, which became a vassal), Hungary, and Poland. Ögedei's death in 1241, caused by alcohol, brought the western campaign to a premature end. The commanders heard the news as they were advancing on Vienna, and withdrew for the kuriltai in Mongolia, never returning so far west again.

Not until Möngke Khan were the Mongols ready to directly take on the Southern Song Dynasty. This empire possessed the world’s greatest steel production and one of the strongest economies at the time. Concerned himself more with the war in China, he outflanked the Song Dynasty through the conquest of Yunnan in 1253 and an invasion of Indochina, which allowed the Mongols to invade from north, west, and south. Taking command personally late in the decade, he captured many of the fortified cities along the northern front. These actions ultimately rendered the conquest a matter of time. He dispatched his brother Hülegü to the southwest, an act which was to expand the Mongol Empire to the gates of Egypt. European conquest was neglected due to the primacy of the other two theaters, but Möngke's friendliness with Batu Khan (with whom Güyük Khan had almost come to open warfare — only prevented from doing so by death) ensured the unity of empire. While conducting the war in China, Möngke fell ill of dysentery and died (in 1259), which aborted Hülegü's campaign, staved off defeat for the Song, and caused a civil war that destroyed the unity, and invincibility, of the Mongol Empire. His death gave rise to Kublai Khan, the first Yuan Emperor of China.

Golden Age of the Yuán

Establishment of the Yuán
Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, ascended to the Great Khanate, becoming the supreme leader of all Mongol tribes in 1260. He began his reign with great aspirations and self-confidence — in 1264 he decided to completely rebuild the city of Khanbaliq (Dàdu ??, present-day Beijing) as his new capital. He began his drive against the Southern Song, establishing, in 1271 — eight years prior to Southern conquest — the first non-Han dynasty to rule all of the Middle Kingdom: the Yuan Dynasty. In 1272, Khanbaliq officially became the capital of the Yuan Dynasty. In 1279, Guangzhou was conquered by the Yuan army, which marks the end of the Southern Song and the onset of China under the Yuan. During Kublai Khan's reign he was put under pressure by many of his advisers to further expand the territory of the Yuan through the traditional Sino-centric tributary system. However, they were rebuffed and expeditions to Japan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Java, all would later fail.

Due to the reasoning that Mongols have gathered a general negative attitude with the new Mongol capital in China, Kublai's early rule may be noted for its bandit-like nature. As if expecting to lose the country, the Mongols attempted to remove as much money and resources as was possible. The Mongol conquest never affected China's trade with other countries. In fact the Yuan Dynasty strongly supported the Silk Road trade network, allowing the transfer of Chinese technologies to the west. Though many reforms were made during Kublai's life, and despite his notable warming to the populace, the Yuán was a relatively short lived dynasty.

Kublai Khan began to serve as a true Emperor, reforming much of China and its institutions, a process which would take decades to complete. He, for example, insulated Mongol rule by centralizing the government of China — making himself (unlike his predecessors) an absolutist monarch. He reformed many other governmental and economic institutions, especially concerning taxation. Although the Mongols sought to govern China through traditional institutions, using Han Chinese bureaucrats, they were not up to the task initially. The Hans were discriminated against politically. Almost all important central posts were monopolized by Mongols, who also preferred employing non-Hans from other parts of the Mongol domain in those positions for which no Mongol could be found. Hans were more often employed in non-Chinese regions of the empire. In essence, the society was divided into four classes in order of privilege: Mongols, "Color-eyed" (Central Asians, mostly Uyghurs and Tibetans), Han (Han Chinese in northern China, Manchus and Jurchens), and Southerners (Han Chinese within Southern Song and other ethnic groups). During his lifetime, Kublai developed the new capital of the Yuan, Khanbaliq, building the elaborate Forbidden City. He also improved the agriculture of China, extending the Grand Canal, highways and public granaries. Marco Polo described his rule as benevolent: relieving the populace of taxes in times of hardship; building hospitals and orphanages; distributing food among the abjectly poor. He also promoted science and religion.

Like other emperors of non-Han dynasties, Kublai considered himself a legitimate Chinese emperor. While he had nominal rule over the rest of the Mongol Empire, his interest was clearly in the Middle Kingdom. After Kublai’s death in 1294 A.D., the Mongol Empire practically broke up into a number of independent Khanates.

Early Rule
Succession was a problem which marked the Yuán Dynasty, later causing much strife and internal struggle. This may be observed as early as the end of Kublai's reign. His original choice was his son, Zhenjin — but he died prior to Kublai in 1285. Thus, Zhenjin's son ruled as Emperor Chengzong of Yuan China for approximately 10 years following Kublai's death (between 1294 and 1307). Chengzong decided to maintain and continue many of the projects and much of the work begun by his grandfather. However, the corruption in the Yuan Dynasty began during the reign of Chengzong.

Emperor Wuzong of Yuan China ascended to the Emperorship of China following the death of Chengzong. Unlike his predecessor, he did not continue Kublai's work, but largely rejected it. During his short reign (1307 to 1311), China fell into financial difficulties, partly by bad decisions made by Wuzong. By the time he died, China was in severe debt and the populace were discontent with the Yuán Dynasty.

The fourth Yuán emperor, Emperor Renzong of Yuan China was seen as the last competent emperor. He stood out among the Mongol rulers of China as an adopter of mainstream culture of China, to the discontent of some Mongol elite. He had been mentored by Li Meng, a Confucian academic. He made many reforms, including the liquidation of the Department of State Affairs (resulting in the execution of 5 of the highest ranking officials). Starting in 1313 examinations were introduced for prospective officials, testing their knowledge on significant historical works. Also he codified much of the law.

A rich cultural diversity developed during the Yuán dynasty. The major cultural achievements were the development of drama and the novel and the increased use of the written vernacular. Given the unified rule of central Asia, trades between East and West flourished. The Mongols' extensive West Asian and European contacts produced a fair amount of cultural exchange. Western musical instruments were introduced to enrich the Chinese performing arts. From this period dates the conversion to Islam, by Muslims of Central Asia, of growing numbers of Chinese in the northwest and southwest. Nestorianism and Roman Catholicism also enjoyed a period of toleration. Tibetan Buddhism flourished, although native Taoism endured Mongol persecutions. Confucian governmental practices and examinations based on the Classics, which had fallen into disuse in north China during the period of disunity, were reinstated by the Mongols in the hope of maintaining order over Han society. Advances were realized in the fields of travel literature, cartography, and geography, and scientific education. Certain Chinese innovations and products, such as purified saltpetre, printing techniques, porcelain, playing cards and medical literature, were exported to Europe and Western Asia, while the production of thin glass and cloisonne became popular in China. The first records of travels by Europeans to China and back date from this time. The most famous traveler of the period was the Venetian Marco Polo, whose account of his trip to "Cambaluc," the Great Khan's capital (now Beijing), and of life there astounded the people of Europe. The account of his travels, Il milione (or, The Million, known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo), appeared about the year 1299. The works of John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck also provided early descriptions of the Mongol people to the West.

The Mongols undertook extensive public works. Road and water communications were reorganized and improved. To provide against possible famines, granaries were ordered built throughout the empire. The city of Beijing was rebuilt with new palace grounds that included artificial lakes, hills and mountains, and parks. During the Yuán period, Beijing became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. These commercially oriented improvements encouraged the overland as well as the maritime commerce throughout Asia and facilitated direct Chinese contacts with Europe. Chinese travelers to the West were able to provide assistance in such areas as hydraulic engineering. Contacts with the West also brought the introduction to China of a major food crop, sorghum, along with other foreign food products and methods of preparation.

Downfall of the Yuán

Civil Unrest
The last of the Yuan Dynasty were marked by successions of struggle, famine, and bitterness by the populace. The dynasty was, significantly, one of the shortest lived dynasties in the History of China, covering the period of just a century 1271 to 1368. In time, Khubilai's successors became sinicized, and they then lost all influence on other Mongol lands across Asia, while the Mongols beyond the Middle Kingdom saw them as too Chinese. Gradually, they lost influence in China as well. The reigns of the later Yuán emperors were short and were marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated from both the army and the populace. China was torn by dissension and unrest; bandits ranged the country without interference from the weakening Yuán armies.

Emperor Yingzong ruled for just two years (1321 to 1323); his rule ended in a coup at the hands of five princes. They placed Taidingdi on the throne, and after an unsuccessful attempt to calm the princes he also succumbed to regicide. The last of the nine successors of Khubilai was expelled from Dadu in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Míng Dynasty (1368–1644).

Northern Yuán
The Mongols retreated to Mongolia, where the Yuan Dynasty remained. It is now called the Northern Yuán by modern historians. According to Chinese political orthodoxy, there could be only one legitimate empire, and so the Ming and the Yuan each denied the legitimacy of the other. However, historians tend to regard the Míng dynasty as the legitimate dynasty.

A Chinese army invaded Mongolia in 1380, and in 1388 a decisive victory was won. About 70,000 Mongols were taken prisoners, and Karakorum (the Mongol capital) was annihilated. Eight years after the invasion, the Mongol throne was taken over by Yesüder, a descendant of Arigh Bugha. After getting the Mongols through the turbulent period, he restored the throne to descendants of Kublai Khan. While conflicts existed with China, the Mongols basically fell under the tributary system of the Ming Dynasty.

The Mongols were greatly attacked by the Manchu in the 17th century. In 1634, Ligdan Khan, the last Great Khan of the Mongols, died on his way to Tibet. His son, Ejei Khan, surrendered to the Manchu and gave the great seal of the Yuán Emperor to its ruler, Hong Taiji. As a result, Hong Taiji established the Qing Dynasty as the successor of the Yuán Dynasty in 1636. (However, some sources such as Encyclopædia Britannica give the year as 1637.)

J. J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests (1971)
M. Rossabi, Khubilai Khan (1988)
Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill, Islamic Technology (1988)