BECK index

Mongols and Yuan China

Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
Khubilai Khan in China
Yuan Dynasty 1294-1368
Chinese Theater in the Yuan Era

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Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire

China 7 BC to 1279

Throughout its history the Chinese faced the northern danger of nomadic horsemen raiding or invading their territory, and for centuries they fought off the Xiongnu. Not farming, these grassland "barbarians" relied on animal products and were often driven to make raids to gain grain, arms, and other supplies. Having no written language and remaining illiterate until the 13th century, little is known of their history before then except through the Chinese and other literate people. About 400 CE the iron stirrup enabled these skilled horsemen to shoot arrows standing up, giving them a military advantage that would last a millennium until the use of gunpowder was developed. The Toba people, who founded the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), were mostly Mongolian, as were the Khitans, who were also in north China and founded the Liao dynasty (947-1125).

Temujin was the first child of Hoelun and was born by the Onon River of Mongolia in the spring of 1162. His father Yesugei was a local chief but was poisoned by the Tatars. To maintain his prominence in the family, Temujin and his brother Khasar killed their half-brother Begter with arrows. Young Temujin fled to the mountains but was captured by the Tayichiud and may have spent a few years as a slave before he escaped. Upon his wedding to Borte, he received a black sable coat, which he gave to his father's ally Ong Khan, the Christian ruler of the Kereyids. After his wife was abducted, Temujin prayed on the Burkhan Khaldun mountain and then asked Ong Khan to help him raid the Merkids. Temujin split with his boyhood friend Jamukha at the age of 19.

Temujin and Ong Khan with their Mongol followers raided the Tatars in 1196. The Jurkin did not support them and killed ten of Temujin's followers. So the next year Temujin defeated them and executed their aristocratic leaders; others were taken into his tribe as regular members instead of as slaves. Jamuka summoned a council (khuriltai) of Tayichiuds and was proclaimed Gurkhan (chief of chiefs), but the Kereyids had more warriors and shamans. In 1201 Temujin was shot in the neck by an arrow, but the Mongols prevailed. The next year Temujin led another campaign against the Tatars and ordered no looting until the battle was over; then the goods were divided, and the widows and orphans of soldiers killed also received a share. Aristocrats who disliked his distribution deserted to Jamukha, but many others joined. Temujin called a khuriltai and gained approval for his policy of killing the aristocratic enemies, though he took two aristocratic Tatars as wives.

In 1203 Temujin asked to marry the daughter of Ong Khan, who was offended and set a trap for him. Temujin learned of the plot and retreated to Lake Baljuna with his brother Khasar and eighteen loyal friends from nine tribes. They were Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, but Temujin worshipped the Eternal Sky and was advised by shamans. As they marched back toward Ong Khan, they were joined by many; the Kereyids retreated and fled west to the Naimans. There Temujin's Mongols used hit-and-run attacks. Jamukha was turned over to Temujin and asked to be killed. Temujin organized his army into squads of ten, companies of a hundred, battalions of a thousand, and tumen (armies) of ten thousand. He had about 90,000 warriors, and all were mounted on horses. Everyone in the tribe had to serve in the army or do public service.

In 1206 Temujin ruled one million people of the Great Mongol Nation and was proclaimed Genghis (Chinggis) Khan, Universal Ruler. He promulgated the Great Law that authorized capital punishment for abducting women, adultery (beyond the family and household), rustling animals, spying, false witness, sorcery, "infamous vices," and claiming an office without an election. Selling women into marriage was prohibited. He granted complete freedom of religion and gave tax exemptions to religious leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scholars, and undertakers. The khan must be elected, and everyone, including the khan, was subject to the law. Hunting of animals was forbidden from March to October during their breeding season. A writing system was developed using the Uighur language and the Syriac alphabet, but most Mongols learned their laws by singing them. Commanders of battalions had to send their sons to the tumen of Genghis Khan, and he used them to replace incompetent and disloyal officials. Mongol warriors were forbidden to speak of death, injury, or defeat. The shaman Teg Tengeri tried to get Genghis Khan to move against Khasar, but their mother persuaded him to have the shaman killed. Genghis Khan married his daughter to the Uighur khan.

Four Khitan officials deserted to the Mongols and urged an attack on the Jurchen. Genghis Khan needed trade goods and called a khuriltai. First the Mongols conquered the Tanguts by 1209. Moving east, in 1212 Genghis Khan restored the Khitan monarchy that had been overthrown by the Jurchen. The Mongols conscripted local labor and assigned ten men to each warrior. Refugees in this highly populated area fled before their army into the cities, where they starved and resorted to cannibalism. Peasants rebelled against Jurchen rule. The Mongols adopted the catapults, gunpowder, siege engines, and other weapons of their enemies, recruiting their engineers and artisans. In 1214 the Jin khan in besieged Zhongdu (Beijing) offered 500 young men and women, 3,000 horses, and massive wealth, and Genghis Khan agreed to go home. When the Jin khan fled to Kaifeng, Genghis Khan felt betrayed and returned. The farms of Inner Mongolia were trampled to make them grazing land for the carnivorous Mongols' animals. The Mongols had always lived in tents with few possessions, but now they had extraordinary wealth. Genghis Khan continued to live frugally because he believed that God punished civilizations for their arrogance and extravagant luxuries.

In Siberia the female chief Botohuitarhun had Mongol envoys killed in 1219 but was eventually defeated. Guchlug married a Black Khitan princess and persecuted Muslims. Genghis Khan sent an army of 20,000 led by Jebe to kill him and end the persecution at Kashgar in Central Asia. The sultan of Khwarezm refused to punish a governor who killed merchants and then killed envoys. This provoked Genghis Khan to lead the invasion that captured the following cities: Bukhara, Samarqand, Otrar, Urgench, Balkh, Banakat, Khojend, Merv, Nisa, Nishapur, Termez, Herat, Bamiyan, Ghazni, Peshawar, Qazvin, Hamadan, Ardabil, Maragheh, Tabriz, Tblisi, Derbent, and Astrakan. The Mongols slaughtered the rich and powerful, but they did not use torture or mutilation. One exception was after the husband of Genghis Khan's daughter was killed at Nishapur in 1221; she ordered the death of all in the city, and the skulls of men, women, and children were piled in pyramids. Persian estimates of the millions killed in some cities are probably exaggerations, but scholars have estimated that the Mongols killed fifteen million people in Central Asia over five years. Some cities were destroyed so that commerce would follow routes easier to control.

Because Jochi was born soon after Borte returned from being abducted, the second son Chaghatai suspected that Jochi was not the son of Genghis Khan. They agreed to let the third son Ogodei be the successor, but personal lands were given to each son. Jochi and Chaghatai quarreled during the conquest of Urgench. Genghis Khan tried to teach them to control their pride and anger. He wanted unity in the Mongol empire and division among his subject peoples. When Jochi died, some suspected that Genghis Khan killed him. After a fall from a horse, Genghis Khan died during the siege of the Xia capital at Xingzhongfu in 1227.

Ogodei gave away pearls, gems, and silk, feasting and drinking during the entire summer of 1229 at Avarga. The next year he sent armies back to northern China and Central Asia to reaffirm Mongol control. A building was constructed at Karakorum for the ruler and to store the wealth. Buddhists, Muslims, Daoists, and Christians were given houses of worship. From 1229 Mongol administration was run by the Khitan prince Yelu Quzai (1190-1243), collecting taxes in Chinese fashion. Weights and measures were standardized. The Song Chinese, attempting to regain northern territory, allied themselves with the Mongols for a siege of Kaifeng in 1232; the Qin emperor was driven out and committed suicide two years later. Because coins were too heavy to transport, in 1236 paper money was devised based on reserves of precious metals and silk. Paper money was followed by civil service examinations and an imperial library at Beijing. A Mongol army led by Ogodei's son Koden attacked Tibet in 1239, but the Tibetans negotiated instead of resisting. Lamas healed Koden's ailments in 1247, showing the superiority of their magic.

By 1235 Ogodei had squandered the wealth. Subodei had conquered as far as Georgia in 1221 and fought Russians in 1224; he recommended a campaign against Europeans. When Genghis Khan's youngest son Tolui died of drinking too much, his oldest son Mongke took his place. Jochi had been succeeded by his son Batu. The Mongols decided to invade both the Song dynasty of China and go west to Europe.

In 1236 Subodei led an army of 50,000 Mongols and 100,000 allies north up the Volga River to Bulgaria. Mongke led a force south to take on the Kipchak Turks. Cities that did not agree to hand over ten percent of their wealth as tribute were attacked, and aristocratic rulers were put to death. Captives were enslaved and forced to fight at the front of the Mongol army and were killed if they did not. Kiev was taken in December 1240, looted, and then burned down. Mongol armies swept across Poland to Germany and through Hungary up to Vienna. A major battle was fought at Liegnitz on April 9, 1241 as the clever Mongols by retreating lured the German knights into swamps, where 25,000 were killed or captured. Prisoners were sold or put to work; miners helped develop the mineral resources in Dzungaria of western Mongolia. Hungarian king Bela IV retreated from the army of Subodei. The Mongols used burning oil and gun powder to cause panic, forcing the Hungarians to flee toward Pest. There Christian priests marched with bone relics, which offended the Mongols' religion; two archbishops, a bishop, and many Templar knights were killed. In this war the Europeans lost nearly a hundred thousand knights.

Ogodei died of excessive drinking in December 1241, and the next year the Mongols withdrew from Europe to Russia. They sold their prisoners to Venetian and Genoese merchants, who distributed them in Mediterranean markets; most ended up in Egypt's slave army. Tolui's widow Sorkhokhtani ruled northern China and eastern Mongolia, but Ogodei's widow Toregene became regent. Ogodei had chosen a grandson as his successor, but Toregene called a khuriltai to elect her son Guyuk. This was not well attended, but in 1246 she got him selected. That year the Franciscan friar Plano Carpini visited their court on behalf of Pope Innocent IV. Guyuk pointed out that the Mongols, not the Pope, controlled most of the world. Guyuk accused his mother's advisor, Fatima Khatun, and got away with torturing her because she was not a Mongol. After Toregene died, Fatima and those connected with her were executed. Sorkhokhtani had refused to marry Guyuk, and he took over her territory. After ruling tyrannically for a year and a half, Guyuk died, probably poisoned.

Sorkhokhtani organized a khuriltai in the Mongolian homeland, and her son Mongke was elected in 1251. Relatives of Ogodei and Guyuk arrived late, and Mongke had 77 put to death. He made his younger brothers, Khubilai and Hulegu, khans of north China and west Asia respectively. Mongke also regularized tax collection throughout the empire and ordered killing and destruction kept to a minimum. Changing leadership and other conquests, such as over Nanzhao in the southwest in 1253, kept the Mongols out of southern Song China for a while. Mongke and his brothers ruled over an immense empire that was symbolized by a Silver Tree with four serpents that provided drinks-airak (fermented mare's milk) for the Mongolian north, mead from honey for the European west, grape wine for the south, and rice wine for the east. In 1253 William of Rubruck arrived from France. Mongke held a debate between Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, but the participants gradually got drunk. Mongke believed in one God but said that God had different religions like fingers on one hand. He observed that Christians did not follow their scriptures and sent Rubruck home. Mongke took on the debts of Guyuk and stabilized the economy. A central agency prevented the issuing of too much paper currency.

Mongke sent his brother Hulegu to attack Baghdad, his brother Khubilai to invade China, and left his youngest brother Arik Boke at home as Prince of the Hearth. With Chinese engineers and European artisans, Hulegu advanced the machinery of war. The Grand Master of the Assassins had sent spies to murder Mongke. This was prevented, and Hulegu's army attacked the Assassins' fortress. The drunk Grand Master was killed by his own followers, and in November 1256 the Ismaili imam surrendered to the Mongols; Mongke had him put to death. Hulegu supplemented his army with Armenians, Georgians, and Turks. By employing iron tubes instead of bamboo, the Mongols used gunpowder to expel metal projectiles and ceramic balls filled with gunpowder that exploded on contact. Their innovations included explosives to undermine walls, smoke bombs, grenades, mortars, and incendiary rockets. Thus Baghdad was struck from a distance and then stormed; in February 1258 for the first time in its five centuries the capital of the Abbasid caliphs surrendered to non-Muslims. The looting went on for 17 days, and then the city was set on fire. Many Christians in Baghdad supported the Mongols. Damascus surrendered before it was attacked. Mongke Khan died in 1259, and the following September the Mamluks of Egypt stopped the Mongol advance and defeated them in Galilee. Hulegu still had the largest portion of the Mongol empire and took Azerbaijan from his cousins. These descendants of Jochi declined to abandon their remaining territory in Russia to attend the khuriltai and became known as the Golden Horde. Hulegu's descendants in the vast Persian empire from Afghanistan to Turkey became known as the Ilkhans or vassal emperors.

Khubilai Khan in China

Meanwhile Khubilai Khan, who was more of a scholar than a warrior, was advancing slowly into China. When his three envoys to Dali in the southwest were killed in 1253, he sent a punitive expedition. Dali surrendered, and Khubilai limited the executions to the killers of the envoys. In 1257 Mongke sent investigators who executed revenue administrators for corruption. Mongke came and ordered Khubilai to settle the conflicts between the Daoists and Buddhists while he took over the military campaign, crossing the Yellow River in May 1258. Khubilai listened to the debate and decided that the Daoist claims in the Huahu Jing were erroneous; so he ordered seventeen Daoists to convert to Buddhism. After Mongke died, Arik Boke and Khubilai held separate Khuriltais in 1260. Khubilai Khan sent his army to attack Karakorum. After several battles and three years of civil war, Arik Boke went to Shangdu and surrendered to Khubilai in 1264. Arik Boke was put on trial, banned from court, and died mysteriously two years later. Khaidu ruled in Bukhara, but Khubilai Khan ruled eastern Mongolia, China, Tibet, Manchuria, and Korea. Starting in 1261, Khubilai pardoned and released many Song merchants. Trade increased as Muslims became intermediaries between China and Central Asia. He also waived taxes on regions suffering economically. He created an office to promote agriculture and support peasants, and he prohibited the animals of the nomadic Mongols from wandering in farmlands. Skirmishes with Song troops led to a major battle in Sichuan in 1265; Khubilai's troops won and captured 146 ships.

As early as 1263 Khubilai Khan ordered an ancestral temple for his family in the Chinese tradition. The Forbidden City, where only Mongols were allowed, was constructed within Beijing, and other sections were designated for foreigners as well. He appointed pacification commissioners to restore war damage and foster good relations with the Han Chinese. The Mongols did not usually impose their religion on others, but eventually the Tibetan lama Phagspa persuaded Khubilai to proclaim Lamaism the national religion of the Mongols. Song prime minister Jia Sidao tried to prepare for a military attack by confiscating land from the wealthy; several resentful Song generals would eventually surrender without fighting. The Mongol attack came in 1268, and the siege of Xiangyang lasted five years. In 1271 Khubilai adopted the dynastic name Yuan meaning "origin." He sent an envoy to Japan in 1268, demanding tribute. From 1264 to 1294 Khubilai received 36 tribute missions from Korea. By 1274 the Mongols had assembled ships built in Korea to invade Japan; but after winning a battle on land, a storm destroyed the fleet, and 13,000 invaders were lost.

Mongol society in China had four classes. A small number of Mongols was the privileged group, followed by the special status of Turks, Muslims, and other non-Chinese; northern Chinese ranked third, and the multitudinous southern Chinese were fourth, above only a considerable number of slaves. Mongols and other foreigners (mostly from Persia) replaced most of the Confucian aristocrats in government, and the civil service exams were abolished. Many Chinese intellectuals had been made slaves until the Mongols realized they could be useful in their administration. The Mongols then decided to staff each office with quotas of northern Chinese, southern Chinese, and foreigners. In 1260 the Yuan government was the first to make paper money the only legal currency throughout an empire, but eventually inflation got out of control. Those with excessive debts could declare bankruptcy twice, but to do so a third time was a capital crime. Khubilai founded the Mongolian Language School in 1269, and that year Phagspa presented an alphabet of forty-one letters derived from the Tibetan. Two years later the Mongolian National University opened in the capital. In 1275 the Mongol army presented a ceremonial drama portraying their military history. Khubilai also patronized a massive history-writing project that took eighty years to complete. He ordered farm households of fifty to one hundred grouped into communes for mutual help. Local councils were encouraged to settle their own disputes. Each commune had an elementary school to teach children reading and writing when they were not needed in the fields. Mongol records indicate they created 20,166 public schools.

Meanwhile in 1273 Khubilai had appointed the Turk Bayan to command the invasion of Song, and in January 1275 the Mongols crossed the Yangzi River. By 1276 Mongol forces had taken Hangzhou (Linan), and the next year they took Canton. The powerful Song navy was surrendered to the Mongols by capitalist Pu Shougeng, who said, "Continuous warfare is bad for business."1 The last Song emperor was drowned in the sea in 1279. The young heir was sent to study in Tibet and became a monk in 1296. Khubilai released tens of thousands of captured Song soldiers and civilians, and he ordered the Mongols to treat the Chinese and their property with respect. However, when a large rebellion erupted in Jiangnan in 1279, the Mongol army crushed it in 1281 and beheaded 20,000 rebels, according to Chinese historians. Resistance continued in Jiangnan, and in 1289 Khubilai prohibited its people from possessing bows and arrows. Khubilai sent more envoys to Japan, but they were beheaded. In 1281 a Korean fleet invaded Japan again and was to be joined by a Chinese fleet, which arrived late; but again a storm destroyed them, drowning about a hundred thousand. Southern Chinese merchants complained about building 500 more boats for a third invasion, and Khubilai cancelled the campaign in 1286.

Even on land the Mongol army had difficulty invading the tropical regions of Southeast Asia. In 1281 a campaign led by Khubilai's son Toghon aimed at Champa had to pass through Annam, whose leader Tran Thanh-Ton objected. In 1285 Toghon withdrew, leaving Sodu and his forces to be killed by the army of Prince Tran Nhat-Canh. Toghon led another invasion in 1287 and occupied Hanoi but had to withdraw because of the heat. Khubilai sent an army to invade Burma in 1283, and in 1287 they occupied Pagan for a few months. In 1289 Java's Kertanagara branded the Mongol envoy on his face. A naval expedition with a thousand boats led by Gao Xing went to Java in 1293, but despite the current civil war in Java they fell into an ambush and retreated.

When Phagspa died in 1280 at the age of 45, poisoning was suspected. The Tibetan official chosen by the Mongols to administer Tibet was arrested and executed; but Khubilai paid for the lama's burial and the building of a stupa to honor him. Khubilai appointed as imperial preceptor Phagspa's 13-year-old nephew Dharmapalaraksita, who had been brought up at the Mongol court. The Brigung sect attacked his Saskya sect and the Mongols in 1285. Khubilai sent his son Temur Bukha with an army that destroyed the Brigung monastery and killed 10,000 men in 1290.

After 1279 Khubilai Khan suffered from gout and drank more. His favorite wife, Chabi, died in 1281, and his designated successor, Zhenjin, died five years later. Ahmad directed the financial administration for twenty years until his death in 1282. He had all taxpayers registered and imposed state monopolies on salt, tea, liquor, vinegar, gold, silver, and copper tools to increase revenues. Tax registers listed 1,418,499 households in northern China in 1261 and 1,967,898 in 1274. Taxes in silver on merchants increased a hundredfold from 1271 to 1286 as southern China was added. Also in those fifteen years the salt monopoly revenues increased sixfold. After the offensive Ahmad was punished in 1282, Lu Shirong was promoted and extorted money from people until he was arrested and executed in 1285. Next Sangha gained control until 1291. He allowed the Buddhist monk Yang Lianzhenjia to plunder treasures from Daoist temples and Song royal tombs in order to renovate and construct Buddhist temples. The registry for 1291 counted 42,318 Buddhist temples and 213,418 monks and nuns.

In 1285 the pirates Zhu and Zhang were given a lucrative contract to transport grain from the south to the north. Two and a half million laborers in 1289 completed the northern portion of the Grand Canal that eventually ran 1100 miles from Hangzhou to Beijing. Khubilai's government guaranteed property rights, reduced taxes, and improved roads. The number of capital offenses was reduced, and less than 2,500 criminals were executed during his reign. Fines often replaced physical punishment. In the Mongol legal code of 1291 reason was recommended, and torture was banned in most cases. Tattooing criminals was a Chinese tradition, but the Mongols prohibited it on the forehead. To get food to the Beijing region, Chinese entrepreneurs were given concessions to ship grain by sea; but these were withdrawn in the early 14th century because of treason and piracy, after they had made huge fortunes. The Mongols facilitated commerce and the spreading of many Chinese technologies to Europe; Francis Bacon considered the most important of these gunpowder, printing, and the compass. The Chinese had begun using moveable type in the 12th century, and the Mongols applied this to their new alphabet, greatly reducing the cost of books. Physicians from Persia and India shared knowledge with the Chinese, improving the skills of all. Persian doctors and translators were imported, and 10,000 Russians colonized the region north of the capital.

Italian traveler Marco Polo served Khubilai Khan from 1275 to 1291; he claimed that he governed the commercial city of Yangzhou for three years, but scholars disagree. He explained the success of Genghis Khan's conquests from his not harming the inhabitants or despoiling their goods, but leading them on to further conquests. However, he wrote that anyone encountered by the funeral procession of a Khan was killed, claiming that 20,000 were put to death when Mongke Khan died in 1259. Marco Polo described how the powerful Saracen Ahmad abused his power so much by collecting wealth, taking women, and executing innocent people that a palace revolt eventually got rid of him. In 1287 Marco Polo witnessed a huge army mobilizing to fight the rebellion led by the Mongol Nayan, who had tried to capture Bayan. Even after Nayan was put to death, Khaidu continue to attack Khubilai's troops in the northwest. Khubilai celebrated the religious feasts of all major religions, revering Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, and Sakyamuni (Buddha). He thought the Christian faith was best, because he found its teachings only good and holy. However, with so few Christians in his empire Khubilai would not accept baptism unless the Pope sent him a hundred religious scholars to teach the religion; but his repeated requests for this were ignored.

Marco Polo also described the incredible wealth and luxuries of Khubilai's court and the speed of his postal messengers, who covered over 200 miles per day on horseback. Marco Polo praised the comfort of stations on the trade routes every twenty or thirty miles. Where possible Khubilai had trees planted along these roads, because his advisors told him those who plant trees live long. In addition to providing food and clothing for the poor, he also supported about 5,000 astrologers and soothsayers. Although the Mongols obviously dominated by using violent warfare, they contributed to world culture by promoting free trade, allowing open communication, sharing knowledge and technology, tolerating religious diversity under a secular state, and encouraging diplomatic immunity. Khubilai died in 1294 and was succeeded by his grandson Temur.

Yuan Dynasty 1294-1368

Rebellions by Chinese against Mongol rule and the privileges of the rich increased after 1300 because of corruption. Temur (r. 1294-1307) had officials investigated in 1303, and 18,473 were convicted. Mongol control weakened as succession struggles and seven young rulers occupied the throne in the next 26 years. The Franciscan papal missionary Giovanni of Monte Corvino was allowed by the Great Khan to preach, taught 150 choirboys Gregorian chant, and baptized 6,000 converts in 1304. Giovanni was appointed archbishop of Daidu (Beijing) by Pope Clement V in 1307, but after his death in 1328 Christianity gradually faded away in China by the end of the Yuan dynasty. Ayurbarwada, known as Emperor Renzong (r. 1312-20), had been tutored by Confucian scholar Li Meng. Upon taking the throne, he abolished the Department of State Affairs and had its five chief ministers executed for what he considered to be corruption. He announced that candidates for office must pass a test on a classic and a historical work, and in 1313 he instituted the examination system based on the classics and Zhu Xi's version of the four Confucian books. The exams started in 1315; but one quarter of the 300 appointments were reserved for Mongols, and one quarter went to foreigners. That year the leveling of tombs in fields in order to add to cultivation caused riots. The Mongols valued merchants much more highly than the Chinese did and increased commerce from 3,000 tons to 210,000 tons in 1329.

Guan Yunshi was a Uighur born into a prominent military family in 1286 in Yongzhou. By 1303 he was a police commissioner in Jiangxi, and three years later he succeeded his father as garrison commander at Yongzhou. He wrote a vernacular exegesis of the Filial Piety classic in 1308, and that year he became tutor to the heir apparent Shidebala. In 1314 he was the principal architect of the reinstated examination system for civil service. The next year he submitted a memorial for the following six Confucian reforms that were inscribed on a stele:

1. Disband the frontier guards so that they may cultivate civil virtues.
2. Educate the heir apparent in order that the foundations of the state may be rectified.
3. Appoint remonstrators to assist his majesty.
4. Publicly honor people by proper surname so as to distinguish the descendants of meritorious officials.
5. Standardize dress so as to transform public morality.
6. Promote the worthy and the talented so as to enlarge the most excellent way.2

When Guan Yunshi was offered a high position at the imperial academy in 1317, he did not want people to think he was ambitious; so he resigned to travel and write poetry in seclusion. He died at the age of 38 in 1324.

Ayurbarwada ordered the law codes systematized and promulgated the Comprehensive Institutions of the Great Yuan (Da Yuan Tongzhi) in 1323. Prime minister Temuder tried to root out opposition by executing his political enemies; but after his death in 1322 he and his partisans were criticized by the Censorate for misappropriating public funds and accepting bribes. Shidebala (r. 1321-24) was killed in a coup d'état involving five princes. Yesun Temur (r. 1324-28) tried to stop the revolt of the princes by enfeoffing 24 of them. A coup organized by Confucians in 1328 placed on the throne the two sons of the former emperor Haishan (r. 1308-12). This began the decline of Mongol imperial rule in China as the failure of the candidate for the Chaghatai Khanate of Central Asia ended their influence in China. The partisans of one brother Togh Temur assassinated the other Qoshila after four months. He was known as Emperor Wenzong until he was succeeded in 1332 by his younger son, who died after two months, leaving his 13-year-old brother Toghon Temur to become Emperor Huizong in 1333.

Though cultured in Chinese ways, Huizong became absorbed in Lamaist superstitions and court debauchery. Bayan had been administrator of the Henan province and allied with the Confucians until he sided with the empress dowager and annihilated El Temur's sons and daughter, Toghon Temur's empress. Then prime minister Bayan repudiated the Confucians and canceled the popular examination system in 1335. At first the Mongols accepted Chan (Zen) Buddhism, but soon their shamanistic affinity with the indigenous customs of the Tibetans caused them to prefer Lama Buddhism. Secret societies of peasants devoted to the Amitabha Buddha grew; some of these vegetarians refused to pay taxes or do compulsory labor. Those in the White Lotus Society expecting Maitreya, the Buddhist Messiah, rose up in Henan in 1335, in Hunan in 1337, and the next years in Guangdong and Sichuan. The Buddhist monk Peng Yingyu led the uprising in Yuanzhou; but the rebel leader who was proclaimed emperor was quickly executed by regional authorities.

Emperor Toghon Temur and his nephew Toghto had Bayan banished in March 1340, and he died a month later. After Bayan was overthrown, Confucianism came into even greater influence. Pending prosecutions were dismissed; back taxes were canceled; salt quotas were lowered; the examination system was restored; and many Confucians were appointed. Toghto began construction on a forty-mile canal in 1342, but protests soon caused it to be shut down. Uprisings broke out in the southern frontiers of the Yuan empire, and bandits ravaged Shandong and Hebei. Reformer Toghto controlled the bureaucracy until 1344 when conservative Confucians became the leaders. The Yellow River flooding of 1344 led to famine, pestilence, migration of refugees, and banditry.

However, in 1349 Toghto regained power and threw out the conservatives. In 1351 engineer Jia Lu was put in charge of 150,000 laborers and 20,000 soldiers for the immense hydraulic project of rerouting the Yellow River. Eleven days after the workers were assembled, a rebellion was instigated by the White Lotus Society. Other rebels joined and took the city of Yingzhou. Toghto sent troops, but imperial forces did better at quelling revolts in the north than in the south. Toghto's army had the rebel leader Zhang Shicheng besieged in Gaoyu when suddenly in December 1354 Toghto was banished by the Yuan Emperor because of conservative opposition. The internal dissension was destroying the Mongol government, and conflicts between regional warlords would eventually allow the rebels to triumph.

Ibn Battuta claimed that he visited China in 1346; he said he arrived by sea and made his way from Guangzhou (Canton) north using the canals. He reported the prosperous use of silk, porcelain, coal, and paper money. He felt he could travel without fear even with money, but he only felt kinship with the Muslims. Ibn Battuta wrote that he met fellow Moroccan al-Bushri, who had become rich in China and gave him two white slaves and two slave-girls. In Hangzhou, probably the largest city in the world, he claimed he lived in the Muslim quarter. From there the Grand Canal took him to Daidu; he had come as the envoy of Delhi sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq but had lost his gifts at sea. Toghon Temur was still ruling. The veracity of Ibn Battuta's account is questioned, because he reported that he attended the funeral of this Emperor, who actually was the last Mongol emperor of China, reigning until he was driven out in 1368.

Zhu Yuanzhang was born on October 21, 1328 in a family of impoverished farmers. After flooding of the lower Yellow River broke the dikes in 1344, famine and an epidemic caused the death of most of his family. Zhu wandered as a mendicant monk for three years and then returned to the temple, where he studied Buddhist scriptures for four years. Peasants called Red Turbans revolted in 1351 when 150,000 workers were assigned to rechannel the Yellow River and reopen the Grand Canal. Another rebel emperor was captured and killed, but his political advisor Liu Futong took custody of young Prince Han Liner and established his headquarters at Yingzhou on the Hunan border. After the temple was burned and plundered during the fighting in 1352, Zhu joined the rebel band of Guo Zixing and married his adopted daughter Ma. After saving Guo's life, Zhu was given an independent command. Another Red Turban leader, Chen Yuliang, occupied the Han valley while a rebel army led by Ming Yuzhen took over Sichuan.

After the capture and death of Liu Futong, Zhu Yuanzhang took over custody of the Prince Han Liner. Guo had died in 1355, and that summer Zhu's army crossed the Yangzi River to attack Nanjing. Zhu respected his opponents and after defeating them incorporated them into his service as he established administrative government by local scholars and officials. By disciplining his troops he was able to win over local populations, granting tax remissions to devastated regions, punishing looters among his troops, and rewarding good service by Mongols as well as Chinese. Zhu denounced Red Turban ideas as a foolish heresy that deluded people, and he proclaimed a new dynasty. Paper money had become worthless and ceased to circulate by 1356. Miserable labor conditions in the salt works led to many escapes and rebellions, and the remaining workers were quick to support the insurrections of 1357. The next year Zhu appointed the former Yuan official Kang Maocai superintendent of hydraulic works and agriculture.

Many people suffered during these civil wars and rebellions; those supporting rebel leaders were punished when Mongols regained their region. Some of the rebels operated as bandits. Zhang Shicheng began smuggling salt; but when rich families refused to pay, he burned down their houses. In 1353 his group of eighteen ruffians soon grew to a rebellion with more than ten thousand followers. Taking the prefectural city of Gaoyu on the Grand Canal, they could intercept grain and supplies. A southern Red Turban leader had been named emperor. In 1354 the Yuan court sent Toghto to attack Zhang's rebels and were defeating them until an imperial edict sent Toghto into exile, causing the imperial army to disperse as many became bandits. Zhang was given amnesty, but in 1356 a rebel persuaded him to begin capturing cities. Zhang's brother Zhang Shide even took Hangzhou but had to withdraw. Zhang Shide came into conflict with Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhang Shide was captured and taken to Nanjing, where he refused to cooperate and starved himself to death in 1357. That year Red Turbans invaded Henan and captured Kaifeng. Chaghan Temur and Li Siqi defeated rebels in Shaanxi; but in 1359 they became independent of the Yuan emperor. Yet that summer Chaghan defeated the Red Turbans in the north by taking Kaifeng, but the next year Chaghan fought Bolod Temur.

By 1360 Zhu Yuanzhang was taxing wine and vinegar while managing the salt monopoly. He minted coins the next year, and in 1363 his mints turned out 38 million coins. Customs offices had been set up in 1362, and tea was also monopolized. The Mongols gave regional leader Chaghan Temur authority over Henan and other provinces, but two of his generals surrendered to Shandong rebels in 1361. Chaghan gave them amnesty, but the next year they assassinated Chaghan and fled to the rebels at Idu. Chaghan's nephew Koko Temur besieged the rebels at Idu but came into conflict with the Mongol Bolod Temur, who was plotting to remove the heir apparent, Prince Ayushiridara. They fought over Shanxi, and Bolod fled to the capital; but Ayushiridara took refuge with Koko in 1364. Bolod's tyranny at court led the Yuan emperor to have him assassinated the next summer. Koko was named prince of Henan and commanded north China; but another civil war broke out when four Shaanxi warlords turned against him.

Zhang Shicheng returned to Yuan loyalty and promised to send grain to Daidu (Beijing). However, in 1363 he repudiated the Yuan government and called himself Prince of Wu, taking Hangzhou. He attacked Zhu Yuanzhang, who was fighting the central Yangzi Red Turbans led by Chen Yuliang. Zhu defeated Chen and challenged Zhang but was not able to defeat him until 1367, when Zhang hanged himself. The old Red Turban capital of Anfeng had been captured the previous year. Prince Han Liner drowned crossing the Yangzi just as Zhu Yuanzhang declared a new calendar for the year 1367. Civil service examinations and the Hanlin Academy were revived. Zhu sent his armies to invade northern China and conquer the south. The next year he named his new dynasty Ming, meaning "radiant." As the Yuan emperor fled to Mongolia, Daidu was taken by Zhu's general Xu Da in September 1368 and renamed Beijing, meaning "the north is pacified." Zhu ordered his Ming armies to deliberately secure the territories conquered in Shanxi and Shaanxi; but this enabled Koko to unite his army with the fleeing Yuan emperor in Mongolia.

The racial discrimination that the Mongols imposed on China is detailed by Tao Zongyi in his Interrupted Labors, which described the popular revolts in southeastern China in mid-century. The three main groups were the Mongols, the various non-Mongols and non-Chinese, and the Chinese. The various races included 13 groups, and 72 nomadic tribes were distinguished. Although Mongols were only about three percent of China, they held about thirty percent of the positions in the bureaucracy. The southern Chinese had the lowest status. Punishments of the Chinese were much more severe; only they were tattooed for theft. They were executed for murdering a Mongol; but Mongols were only fined for homicide if the victim was Chinese. The Mongols introduced slow death for hardened criminals. Only Mongols were allowed to carry weapons. Craftsmen were not allowed to change their profession and were guarded in buildings. The salt-works were so miserable that many escaped to rebel; in 1342 their numbers were reduced to less than half. Most were taxed in grain or cloth; these were so onerous in the south that they provoked widespread rebellion from 1351 to 1368. The large estates in the south had been maintained under the Mongols, and hatred of the rich also fueled revolt.

The Mongols favored the merchants from central Asia and the Middle East. Since only paper money was used in China, it is believed that much silver was exported to the west. Such trade helped spread Chinese inventions such as gunpowder, printing, paper money, porcelain, silk, playing cards, and medical techniques. In turn Mongol China was strongly influenced by Islam and Arab-Turkish culture.

Ming Empire 1368-1644

Chinese Theater in the Yuan Era

The Chinese theater, probably influenced by Indian drama, emerged rapidly in the 13th century during the conquest of the Mongols. By the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368 at least 700 plays were written, of which 160 are still extant. The Mongols degraded Confucian scholars to the eighth class just below prostitutes and above only beggars. Apparently this removed Confucian restraints from play production, and the dramas and comedies also offered the Chinese expressive outlet under Mongol domination. The Ming emperors instituted rigorous censorship of plays with laws threatening to execute anyone performing, printing, or even possessing forbidden plays. As plays in the Mongol era had often been performed by prostitutes, the Ming dynasty considered actors and actresses as low as prostitutes; like them their sons were not allowed to take imperial examinations. The plays called Yuan Songs combine all the theatrical elements of drama, comedy, song, dance, acrobatics, and mime. Men and boys might play female roles, and in prostitute productions females often played men.

Zhang Boils the Sea by Li Haogu is from the early 13th century. In this mythic drama the immortal Dong Hua explains how two immortals fell in love during a festival and were banished to mortal earth as Zhang, a Confucian scholar, and Qionglien, daughter of the divine dragon-king of the eastern sea. Zhang joins a Buddhist monastery where he can study in quiet. The two young people meet walking on the seashore and instantly fall in love and decide to marry. At the same time his servant wants to marry her maid. To gain the permission of her dragon father, an immortal tells Zhang to boil water with a piece of gold in a silver pan, which causes the sea-level to go down as the water boils away. As soon as the dragon king agrees to the marriage, Dong Hua explains that the divine lovers have fulfilled their punishment and are to return to the Jasper Pool of the immortals.

The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang from the late 13th century is a dramatic revenge play set back in the late 7th century BC when a tyrannical king tried to annihilate the Zhao family that had offended him. His commanding general, Duan Gu, describes how having killed 300 Zhaos he is now trying to kill the last one, Zhao Shuo, who has married the Emperor's daughter, by forging an imperial order that he must commit suicide. Zhao Shuo stabs himself to death, but his wife gives birth to their son. Duan Gu orders death not only to the orphan child but to anyone who helps him. The princess gives her child to her physician Cheng Ying to smuggle out of the palace and then hangs herself. At the gate the child is discovered by General Han Jue, who, giving up the honors and wealth he could have for turning over the child, heroically kills himself instead. Duan Gu forges another decree to collect all the young babies, whom he threatens to kill if the orphan is not found. Cheng Ying goes to Gungsun Chujiu, a friend of the Zhaos and offers to die himself with his own child to save the orphan; but Gungsun Chujiu, being much older, offers his own life instead.

Cheng Ying takes the orphan to his home and brings his own child to Gungsun's house. Then he tells Duan Gu the orphan is at Gungsun's house, explaining his motivation as saving his own child from Duan Gu's threat. In a poignant scene Duan Gu makes Cheng beat Gungsun, not allowing him to use a thin rod that would not hurt nor a large one that would kill him fast. The ruse works, as Cheng's child is killed, and Gungsun dashes his head against the steps and dies. Twenty years later Cheng explains to his "son" Cheng Bo the whole story and tells him he is the orphan of Zhao. Having been raised in honor by Duan Gu, Cheng Bo is able to meet him without his bodyguards and capture the cruel general. An official announces that he will be put to death slowly, and Cheng Bo has his family titles and name restored as Zhao Wu. Watching plays like this, the suffering Chinese could dream of overthrowing their Mongol oppressors.

In Zheng Dehui's The Soul of Qiannu Leaves Her Body Mrs. Zhang promises her daughter Qiannu in marriage to Wang Wenju if he passes the examination and is appointed to an official position; after their tender parting, her soul leaves her body and follows him. Since she is willing to live with him even if he fails the exam, he lets her stay with him. After passing the exam and getting appointed to office, Wang sends a messenger to Mrs. Zhang. Meanwhile the rest of Qiannu is pining away in her mother's house, saying, "Love is the most fatal sickness of all."3 She dreams she sees Wang, and her jealous fears are confirmed when the messenger tells her Wang is returning with his mistress. Wang arrives and tells Mrs. Zhang he should not have taken her daughter to the capital; but she tells him that she has fallen ill and not left the house. When she sees her daughter's soul, she calls it a demon, and Wang threatens to cut it in two. Then the soul returns, and the body of Qiannu wakes up. After she explains how she had become two women for a while, they all celebrate with a feast.

The extant text of Qiu Hu Tries to Seduce His Own Wife by Shi Junbao (1192-1276) probably was edited in the Ming era but is based on very old stories. The poor scholar Qiu Hu marries the beautiful Plum-Blossom Beauty; but on the third day of the wedding celebrations he is conscripted into the army. His wife lives with his parents; but after ten years the wealthy Squire Li says that her husband is dead and arranges to marry her. When Qiu Hu returns, he does not recognize his wife and tries to seduce her in a mulberry grove by offering her gold he was given for his mother. Plum-Blossom Beauty defends her honor and runs off. When Qiu Hu gets home, Plum-Blossom Beauty says she proved her chastity by refusing his gold and demands a divorce. Qiu Hu has Squire Li arrested for trying to abduct her. Qiu Hu realizes that he tried to seduce his own wife; but after Qiu's mother threatens to commit suicide, Plum-Blossom Beauty agrees to be reunited with her husband.

Guan Hanqing was from Daidu (Beijing), and it was said he wrote sixty plays in the late 13th century. In his Injustice Done to Dou Ngo Dou Tianzhang sends his daughter Dou Ngo to Mother Zai to marry her son so that she will forgive his debt and give him money for the journey to take his examination. Thirteen years later young Dou Ngo's husband has died. Also owing Mother Zai money, Dr. Lu tries to strangle her; but Old Zhang and his son Donkey Zhang save her. They both want to marry the two widows, and in gratitude Mother Zai invites them to live with them, though her daughter Dou Ngo refuses to marry again. So Donkey Zhang buys some poison from Dr. Lu by threatening to turn him in for the attempted strangling. Donkey Zhang puts the poison in soup for Mother Zai; she declines it, but Old Zhang drinks it and dies.

Donkey Zhang threatens to charge Dou Ngo with the murder unless she marries him, but she still refuses. His accusation is made before the prefect Evilbrute, who lives off bribes. He has Dou Ngo beaten, but she does not confess until he orders her mother-in-law beaten too. He sentences Dou Ngo to death, and she cries out to heaven and earth for justice, lamenting that so often right and wrong are not distinguished as the good suffer poverty and short life while the wicked enjoy wealth and live long. Before she is beheaded, Dou Ngo prophesies that her blood will not touch the ground, that it will snow then even though it is summer, and that a drought will last three years, all of which come to pass.

Three years later her father returns to this town as Inspector General and with the help of her ghost finds his daughter's case. He orders Donkey Zhang, Dr. Lu, and Mother Zai brought to court, and again the ghost helps reveal the truth. He sentences Donkey Zhang to death, Prefect Evilbrute and his police chief to be whipped and dismissed, and Dr. Lu to be exiled. Once again the Chinese playgoers could hope for justice while suffering the wrongs of Mongol rulers.

In Guan Hanqing's play The Wife-Snatcher the powerful bully Lu Zhailang takes the wife of silversmith Li Si. He soon tires of her and so orders the clerk Zhang Gui to send his wife to him. Zhang's wife has the maiden name Li and adopts Li Si as her brother before she is turned over to Lu, who then sends Li Si's wife to Zhang to help take care of his two children. Li Si comes to visit and is reunited with his wife, causing Zhang to go off to be a hermit. In the fourth act the prefect Bao Zheng has the criminal Lu Zhailang executed and manages to reunite the families with a double wedding: Li Si's son marries Zhang's daughter, and Li Si's daughter weds Zhang's son. This drama clearly protests the vile practice of Mongol officials in the country abducting wives and seizing property; but to deflect danger from himself the author places the story in the Song era. Bao Zheng lived in the eleventh century and was so renowned for his wise judgments that he became a legendary figure and also appears in ten other extant Yuan plays that emphasize the theme of social justice.

Bao Zheng also dispenses justice in The Butterfly Dream by Guan Hanqing. Wang is murdered by the local bully Ge Biao; but he has three sons, and they quickly kill Ge Biao to avenge their father. Wang's wife says he suffered just violence for his violence. The three sons and their mother are all arrested. Wang's wife offers her own life but must face the terrible choice of which son must be executed to pay for the death of Ge Biao. The oldest is a good son and takes care of her; the second son has business skill and will provide for her; so she offers her third son. Bao assumes he must be adopted; but the reverse is true. Wang's wife is only the natural mother of the third son; but she does not want to be a cruel stepmother to her two oldest sons. At the last moment the wise Bao has a horse thief executed instead of the youngest son, and all are given amnesty.

In Guan Hanqing's Rescued by a Coquette the profligate son of an official, Zhou She, marries sing-song girl Song Yinzhang even though her sing-song sister Zhao Paner advises her to marry the scholar An Xiushi; but as soon as they crossed the threshold, Zhou gave Yinzhang fifty strokes. So Yinzhang's mother Song sends Paner to rescue her. Paner seduces Zhou, and without accepting any gifts from him she promises to marry him after he divorces Yinzhang. Zhou tries to chew up the divorce certificate, but Paner gave him a copy. Paner says she is not obligated to marry Zhou, because singsong girls live by such broken promises made by men. Finally the prefect sentences Zhou to sixty strokes, and Yinzhang marries the scholar An. In this comedy an exploited sing-song girl turns the tables on the abusive gentleman.

Guan Hanqing's play The Riverside Pavilion begins with Abbess Bai warning the young widow Tan Jier not to become a nun, because the nights are so lonely. After three years of mourning, Abbess Bai tricks Tan into marrying her nephew Bai Shizhong, who is magistrate of Tanzhou. Tan makes Bai promise to govern justly according to heaven so that the people may have peace. Powerful Lord Yang wants Tan for a concubine and tells the Emperor that Bai neglects his duty for wine and women, and he is given a gold tally authorizing him to execute Bai. When Bai gets a letter warning him, Tan suspects he has another wife. Bai explains, and Tan goes as a fishwife to seduce Yang, making him write poetry. After Yang and his servants are drunk, she takes the gold tally, his sword, and the edict. When Yang goes to arrest Bai, he has no edict but only poems. Tan explains Yang's evil plan, and the investigating prefect declares that Yang will lose his official position. The characters often share their thoughts by talking to the audience, and this comedy is hilarious. In Hanqing's The Jade Mirror-Stand an older scholar marries a young woman, who is not persuaded to love him until he writes a poem to gain a reward and so that her face will not be painted black. These plays affirm the value of these odd marriages in an era when polygamy was allowed.

In Lord Guan Goes to the Feast Guan Hanqing portrayed the fearsome general Lord Guan, who was loyal to the popular king Liu Bei during the time of the three kingdoms. The Wu kingdom minister Lu Su thinks he can get Lord Guan to give back the Jingzhou territory by luring him to a feast and capturing him. Lu's advisor Qiao Gong and the reclusive Sima Hui warn him that his plan will not work. Lord Guan is supported by his sons, and Lu in meeting him is too overawed by the heroic general to try to implement his trap. In Guan Hanqing's The Double Dream the ghosts of Lord Guan and Zhang Fei go to their living brother Xuande (Liu Bei), who avenges their deaths by executing four men.

Death of the Winged-Tiger General by Guan Hanqing is another historical drama; this one is set in the early tenth century at the end of the Tang dynasty. The Tatar prince Li Keyong has helped the Tang empire with the skill of his adopted son Li Cunxian by defeating rebellious peasants; but two other adopted sons of Li Keyong please him with singing and dancing, and they intrigue against Li Cunxian to gain his rewarded province and even to have him executed. When Li Keyong's wife Liu explains to him how they tricked the drunk ruler, he has these two adopted sons executed also. This miserable tragedy reminded audiences that such abuses occur when the Mongols rule.

Autumn in Han Palace by Ma Zhiyuan is based on a story about Earlier Han emperor Yuan in the first century BC. Emperor Yuan has his counselor Mao Yanshou select the most beautiful women in the empire to be his wives and concubines. To choose from so many he has their portraits painted. The most beautiful Wang Zhaozhun has not seen the Emperor in ten years because she refuses to bribe the portrait painters. One day they meet by accident in the palace; she explains, and he orders Mao Yanshou arrested and beheaded. Mao Yanshou escapes and takes her portrait to the Xiongnu emperor Huhanya, who requests her in marriage as a price for peace. The Xiongnu envoy threatens that they have an army of one million ready to invade. Wang Zhaozhun is willing to go in order to appease the barbarian emperor and avert war. Emperor Yuan is very reluctant to part with his favorite concubine, but eventually he does so. While crossing the bordering river Wang Zhaozhun jumps into the water and drowns herself. Emperor Huhanya orders Mao Yanshou arrested and returned to Emperor Yuan for punishment in order to resolve the situation, and he is beheaded as a sacrifice to the brilliant imperial concubine. Chinese audiences of this play could take consolation in this patriotic woman's refusal to give in to the northern barbarian ruler.

Ma Zhiyuan also wrote Daoist plays. In The Dream of Yellow Millet, which is based on Shen Jiqi's "Story of the Pillow" from the Tang era, the scholar Lu Dongbin is going to take the state exam and meets an immortal at an inn. As the millet cooks, the scholar dreams he passes his examination and becomes a general and a wealthy father; but after he gets treasure from rebels without suppressing them, his adulterous wife accuses him of treason. Lu and his children are banished. They are taken in by an old woman; but her son kills Lu's son and daughter and is about to kill him when he wakes up in terror. The millet is still cooking, and Lu decides to give up worldly ambitions and follow the immortal. In Ma Zhiyuan's play Ren Fengzi, a butcher by that name is destined to be an immortal. Instead of asking him to stop killing animals, the immortal Ma Danyang gets all the people in the town to stop eating meat. The angry butcher goes to the immortal and seems to have had his head cut off; but he finds it is still connected, and he becomes a disciple of the immortal, freeing himself from desire for wine, sex, money, and all worldly things. After ten years he becomes an immortal. In Ma Zhiyuan's Chen Duan Stays Aloof, a recluse predicts the good fortune of Zhao, who becomes the founding emperor of the Song dynasty; but Chen refuses an official position because he is happy living in the mountains. Several other Yuan plays also show people becoming recluses or attaining enlightenment by Daoist or Buddhist practices.

The best known and longest of the Yuan plays is The Romance of the Western Chamber attributed to Wang Shifu about 1300. A century earlier Dong Jieyuan adapted Yuan Zhen's short story into a long poem with a newly devised happy ending. Instead of the usual four acts, the play consists of four four-act plays plus a four-act continuation that some scholars suspect was written by someone else. In this very romantic play the young scholar Zhang Junrui meets Cui Yingying at a monastery while this daughter of a late prime minister is there mourning with her mother. When the Flying Tiger bandit Sun with five thousand men demands Yingying in marriage, she lists five reasons why it is better she give herself up; but Madam Cui offers to give her daughter in marriage to anyone who can drive off the rebels. Zhang writes to his close friend General Du, who immediately brings a force to chase away the bandits. However, upon meeting their savior Zhang, Madam Cui tells her daughter to greet him as an elder brother, because her late husband had already promised Yingying to her nephew Zheng Heng.

Yingying's clever maid Hung Niang helps Zhang to woo Yingying with a lute and by exchanging poetry, although their first assignation is delayed by Zhang's disappointment and lovesickness. Eventually they meet in the western chamber and consummate their love. After a month of these meetings, her mother learns of them; but Hung Niang boldly admits what she encouraged and chides Madam Cui for her breach of good faith while leaving them nearby each other. When Yingying says she is ashamed to see her mother, Hung Niang tells her that then she should not have acted as she did. Madam Cui agrees to let them marry if Zhang passes his examination and gains public office. In their tender parting Yingying realizes that the sorrow of separation is ten times worse than the bitterness of the earlier lovesickness; she is afraid Zhang will find another wife. In the continuation play a messenger tells Yingying that Zhang has obtained an official post; but Zheng Heng tries to claim his bride by telling Madam Cui that Zhang has married a daughter of President Wei at the capital. In criticizing Zheng, Hung Niang affirms the Chinese values of education and social mobility over inherited social status as follows:

He, following the teachings of his master and friends,
Is a gentleman who is devoted to the foundations of life.
You, depending on your forebears and elders,
Use your influence to oppress people.
He lived on the humblest fare for days and months without grumbling at his poverty,
And gained new fame and renown by his own efforts.
You wretch, your views are entirely false.
And you know not the difference between right and wrong.
You say that only official families are worthy of being official,
And you readily utter such nonsense
Which is opposed to the true facts.
You say the poor always remain poor,
Instead of that prime ministers and generals are produced from the homes of the poor.4

When Zhang returns, in the presence of General Du, Zheng has to admit his story of Zhang's marriage to the Wei family is false; giving up the marriage, Zheng commits suicide. Finally Zhang and Yingying are able to marry, and with his new position a prosperous life is expected.

An anonymous play from the early 14th century called A Stratagem of Interlocking Rings shows a minister using the seductive charms of his daughter to weave a trap and capture the cruel prime minister Dong Zhuo, who had been plotting to overthrow the last Han emperor in the late 2nd century CE; this was another play to inspire subversion of the Mongol regime. Several Yuan plays use characters from the stories that were made into the novel Outlaws of the Marsh to show that sometimes outlaws are more just than those in the government. The popularity of the Yuan theater at this time is indicated by an anonymous nanxi play that claims it was written by a genius from Hangzhou. The play, A Grandee's Son Takes the Wrong Career, is about the son of a prefect who gives up studying in order to run off with an actress and become an actor in a touring company. This comedy mentions the titles of numerous other Yuan plays.

In The Chalk Circle by Li Xingdao from the Yuan era Mrs. Zhang has been supported by the prostitution of her daughter Haitang, and her son Zhanglin resents this. Haitang persuades her mother to let her become the second wife of Lord Ma, who gives Mrs. Zhang a hundred ounces of silver. The first wife, Mrs. Ma, is in love with the clerk of the court, Zhao, who gives her poison to murder her husband. Impoverished Zhanglin begs his sister Haitang for help; she says she has only her clothes and jewels, but they belong to Mrs. Ma, who hands them to Zhanglin as her own gift. Then Mrs. Ma tells her husband that Haitang gave her things to her lover, and she puts poison in the soup that Haitang hands to Lord Ma, who dies from it. Haitang has a son and refuses to leave without him; so Mrs. Ma claims the son is hers to gain the estate, accuses Haitang of murdering her husband, and gets Zhao to bribe witnesses to say she is the boy's mother. The governor Zhengzhou is a very corrupt judge and lets his clerk Zhao question Haitang. He exposes her life as a prostitute and accuses her of killing her husband and stealing from Mrs. Ma because of her own lover. The midwives have been suborned by money and testify falsely that Mrs. Ma is the mother of the boy. Haitang is questioned and tortured with blows until she confesses.

Two constables are taking Haitang to Gaifengfu and stop at a tavern. They have been paid by Zhao to kill her; but her brother Zhanglin finds Haitang and learns the truth from her. He sees Mrs. Ma with Zhao and makes them all go to the court of the Gaifengfu governor Bao Zheng. Afraid his sister is too intimidated to testify, Zhanglin tries to tell what happened; but he is disciplined for talking out of turn. Bao Zheng questions Haitang and orders a circle drawn with chalk. The two women are to pull on the arms of the boy to see who is the real mother. Each time Haitang lets go so that the boy's arms will not be injured. Bao Zheng concludes that the cruel Mrs. Ma stole the child and gets Zhao to tell the whole story, hoping he will not get the death penalty. The judge Zhengzhou is removed from office and degraded. The perjuring midwives are to get eighty lashes and the corrupt constables a hundred lashes. Mrs. Ma and Zhao are to be executed in the public square by Zhanglin, and Haitang is reunited with her son. This drama, which is obviously similar to a story about Solomon, confirms Governor Bao Zheng's belief that a person cannot hide once you have witnessed one's actions, examined the reasons for the conduct, and understood the motives.

Gao Ming did not earn his doctoral degree until 1344 when he was about forty. The Yuan government recruited him to be a naval advisor in 1348; but Gao did not like this service and soon retired to write his great play, The Lute. This long play in 42 scenes is filled with quotes and allusions to the Chinese literary heritage while exploring the Confucian theme of filial piety. The Lute is considered one of the first chuanqi plays that became the southern style. The first Ming emperor Hongwu admired it and invited Gao Ming to work on the history of the Yuan dynasty; but Gao Ming died about that time. The Lute thus represents the transition from the Yuan drama to the Ming plays.

In The Lute Cai Bojie is an excellent scholar during the Han dynasty but stays at home in Chenliu to serve his elderly parents with his wife Wuniang. Cai's father and neighbor Zhang Dakong persuade him to go take the examination at the capital by accusing him of not wanting to leave his wife and mother. Cai promises Wuniang he will not take a second wife and leaves her and Zhang to take care of his parents. In the capital Luoyang prime minister Niu tells matchmakers he will only wed his daughter to the top winner on the exams. Cai places first but feels guilty about having left his parents. They are now suffering from a famine, and Wuniang says she will pawn her jewels. Prime minister Niu sends a matchmaker to Cai to propose a marriage. Cai declines because he has a wife. The prime minister uses his power to insist, though Miss Niu feels such a forced marriage would not work. Cai petitions the Emperor to return home and decline the marriage; but serving one's ruler is considered a higher filial duty, and marrying Miss Niu a great honor. At Chenliu, Wuniang has her share of grain stolen by the village headman and attempts suicide; Cai's father stops her but is so overcome, he tries to kill himself too. However, Zhang gives them half his grain.

Grieving Cai reluctantly weds Miss Niu in splendor. At home Wuniang secretly eats only husks; when Cai's suspicious parents discover this, the mother is so appalled that she dies. In the prime minister's mansion Cai's wife gets her grieving husband to make love to her, and Cai sends a messenger to his family. Father Cai becomes ill and dies, and Wuniang cuts her hair to pay for the funeral. A swindler tells Cai his family is well in order to get a gift to them and messenger pay he can steal. At Chenliu, Wuniang has to dig the grave herself; she falls asleep, and a dream guides her to go to the capital. There Cai's new wife has learned the cause of his sorrow and suggests they go to Chenliu, but her father forbids her to leave. Instead, the prime minister sends Li Wang to bring the Cai family to the capital. Wuniang plays her lute and sings at a monastery, where she learns of Cai. Wuniang goes to Miss Niu as a nun and is hired to be a maid. Wuniang writes poems about filial piety that Cai keeps discovering. Miss Niu learns who Wuniang is and eventually reunites her with her husband. The prime minister allows the three to return to Chenliu for the mourning period and even gets Cai an imperial commendation for his filial piety. This highly literate drama contrasts the poverty of a family in the country to the extreme wealth of officials in the Yuan empire but resolves the conflict by strongly affirming the Confucian value of filial piety.

Theater in the Ming Era
Theater in the Qing Era

Ming Empire 1368-1644


1. Li, Dun J., The Ageless Chinese, p. 255.
2. Ou-yang Hsuan, Kuei-chai wen-chi, 9.21a, and Appendix I,10 quoted in Lynn, Richard John, Kuan Yun-shih, p. 32.
3. Six Yuan Plays tr. Liu Jung-en, p. 104.
4. The Romance of the Western Chamber tr. S. I. Hsiung, p. 247.

Copyright © 2004-2005 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CHINA, KOREA & JAPAN to 1800. For ordering information please click here.

EAST ASIA 1800-1949

Shang, Zhou and the Classics
Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi
Daoism and Mo-zi
Legalism, Qin Empire and Han Dynasty
China 7 BC to 1279
Mongols and Yuan China
Ming Empire 1368-1644
Qing Empire 1644-1799
Korea to 1800
Japan to 1615
Japan 1615-1800
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronological Index
Chronology of Asia & Africa to 1800
Chronology of Asia & Africa 1800-1950
Chronology of East Asia to 1950

BECK index