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China: Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368)

The emperors of the Yuan dynasty were Mongols, descendants of Ghenghis Khan (1162-1227), the 'Universal Leader' as his name translates. Ghenghis had conquered part of northern China in 1215, having already united the various nomadic tribes of the steppe land. He divided his empire into four kingdoms, each ruled and expanded by a son and his wife.

Ghenghis' grandson, Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-94), was ruler of the eastern Great Khanate. He completed the conquest of China by defeating the Southern Song in 1279. He ruled as emperor, giving his dynasty a Chinese name, Yuan, meaning 'origin'. He moved the capital to Dadu (now Beijing), shifting the central focus of the empire away from Central Asia.

Under the Mongols, the élite was formed by military officers, rather than the scholar-officials of previous dynasties. Though the bureaucracy was still necessary for administering the country, many scholar-officials retired, rather than serve a foreign regime. These yi-min, or 'leftover ones', dedicated themselves to painting and other literary pursuits.

Generally, the Mongol emperors and bureaucrats were not great patrons of the traditional Chinese arts, although there are a few exceptions. Craftsmen were free to develop and exploit new influences, many dictated by the demands of trade. This is especially apparent in ceramics production, the most important example of which is blue-and-white porcelain.

Because it was foreign-ruled, the Yuan dynasty was traditionally considered to have been all detrimental, contributing nothing new or good to Chinese culture. In the past few decades, this thinking has undergone a change, resulting in a more objective appreciation of the Mongol period.

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