The Mongols, the Ming and the Manchus:
The History of China from 1271 to 1912

The Yuan Dynasty

By 1234 the Mongols had conquered both the Jin Dynasty and the Western Xia. In 1271 Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) with its capital in Dadu (now Beijing). Beijing’s Beihai Park was the site of the Khan’s palace, though nothing remains of it today. Immediately thereafter Kublai set his sights on the Song and by 1279 China had once again been reunited, and for the first time by a foreign power.

Unlike his predecessors, most notably his fearsome grandfather Genghis, Kublai Khan was more interested in ruling than in plundering and managed to reform and strengthen many Chinese institutions. It was during this period that Marco Polo made his famous journey all the way to Kublai Khan’s court, and looked on the Emperor’s rule as wise and benevolent. But after Kublai’s death in 1294 there followed a succession of average or weak emperors. Their reigns were largely marked by corruption and rivalries and the dynasty began to crumble.

Significance: Under the Yuan Dynasty the empire was once again reunited. Beijing began to take on its current form in this period, with its distinctive grid layout and hutongs. The Yuan Dynasty expanded the Chinese empire to its greatest ever dimensions.

The Ming Dynasty

By 1368 the Yuan Dynasty had been overrun by the forces of a peasant by the name of Zhu Yuanzhang who would become the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Zhu Yuanzhang, or Emperor Hongwu, created his capital in the city of Nanjing. Nanjing’s city walls were constructed during his reign while Hongwu’s tomb is located on Nanjing’s Purple Mountain. But after Hongwu’s death in 1398 his son, Emperor Yongle, had the capital moved back to Beijing. Yongle (reign: 1402-1424) would be one of the most influential emperors in Chinese history. It was him who ordered the construction of the Forbidden City, which would remain the seat of Chinese power for some 500 years. He worked hard to expand Chinese influence abroad by funding naval exploration missions around the world. A zealot of Chinese culture, he worked hard to entrench Chinese customs at home and to vanquish foreign influences. China prospered both culturally and economically under his rule.

But foreign powers were to have a profound influence on the Ming Dynasty. In 1439 China was attacked by the Mongols. As a result, a massive effort went into strengthening and extending the Great Wall of China. The majority of the Great Wall that can be seen today dates from this period (late 15th Century). By the mid 1500s European merchants and missionaries were arriving in China. The Portuguese were granted a base in Macau in 1557 and Jesuit priests had established themselves in Beijing soon afterwards. They found favor with the emperors due to their scientific knowledge. The ancient observatory in Beijing was run by the Jesuits.

By the early 16th Century, the Ming Dynasty was suffering from a succession of inept emperors and natural calamities, leading to numerous rebellions. Seeing the turmoil in China, the Manchus took the opportunity to strike. A Ming general assisted the Manchu army by allowing them to pass through the Great Wall and in 1644 the Ming were overthrown and China’s final dynasty was established.

Significance: Many of China’s most prominent tourist attractions, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China were constructed during the Ming Dynasty. If you’re visiting an old building while sightseeing in China, there’s a good chance it was built during this era.

The Qing Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) prospered in its early years but was ultimately wracked by successive rebellions and wars with foreign powers. However, the first 150 years of the Qing Dynasty was marked by the wise and successful rule of emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. Emperor Kangxi in particular was able to extend the empire’s borders to roughly the same extent that China enjoys today (though these gains were later lost). And the Manchu rulers were careful to adopt at least some Chinese practices and present themselves as legitimate rulers, not merely an occupying force. The relative wealth and prosperity of this period led to widespread renovations of many historic buildings and temples during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. Hence, when sightseeing in China, you will notice that many buildings were last rebuilt during this period.

In the 1800s, things took a turn for the worse. The first major conflict was the First Opium War. Europeans had long been upset by the unequal trade balance with China and had used opium to turn the tide in their favor. In 1839, the Qing emperor made a concerted effort to ban the opium trade, sending an envoy to seize a huge quantity of British opium in Guangzhou. The British attacked in 1840 and within 2 years had signed the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain and allowed European access to Chinese ports.

Then in 1850 came the Taiping Rebellion, the civil war with the highest death toll in world history. The rebellion began in Guangxi Province and was led by Hong Xiquan, who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The conflict raged for 14 years and the Taiping enjoyed considerable success, controlling much of southern China and maintaining a capital in Nanjing. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom History Museum in Nanjing provides some information about this fascinating period.

In the midst of the Taiping Rebellion, Anglo-French forces launched an attack on the Qing Dynasty and won further trade concessions with the Treaty of Tianjin in 1860. They then joined forces to help the Qing put down the Taiping Rebellion.

But the rebellions continued and the dynasty suffered from weak leadership. The final nail in the coffin was the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the de facto ruler of China for the second half of the 19th Century. At a time when China desperately needed reform Cixi was more interested in her own personal wealth. The Summer Palace in Beijing was refurbished under her orders. Three years after her death in 1908, the last of China’s dynasties would fall.

Significance: Most of China’s historic buildings were renovated during the Qing Dynasty and therefore bear the mark of this era. This was also the age of colonialism in China – European settlements in places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Qingdao are popular tourist attractions today.